Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

18 Mar 2015

On "Preferences" and Church Membership

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Another week of blogs, another contribution to the relentless stream of warnings to all Christians everywhere never to let music preference be a factor in deciding where to go to church, and above all never, ever to leave a church for this reason. This unremitting theme has apparently now climaxed with the observation that music preference is perched at the very top of the list of bad reasons to leave a church. The millennials have spoken, and music has no meaning. (Amazing, isn’t it? Instead of the simple and irenic strategy of requiring unison recitations, God expects us to adorn these recitations with something totally meaningless and potentially contentious. Weird.) Don’t argue, just accept it.

OK, cynicism aside, I’ll admit that there is an argument to be made here, but let me insert a critical adjective: Autonomous musical preference is a bad reason to leave a church, just like autonomous preferences about preaching, ordinances, church discipline, church mission, etc., are bad reasons for joining/leaving a church. I.e., it is a bad reason to leave/join a church because:

  • I prefer short, funny, and happy sermons that don’t require me to lug around a Bible and never make me feel guilty.
  • I prefer churches that let me get in, get out, and get on with my life.
  • I prefer sprinkling infants to baptizing believers because it’s less messy and does more.
  • I prefer taking communion as a meal with a few Christian friends rather than with the whole church because I dislike crowds generally, and I specifically dislike quite a few jerks in that specific crowd.
  • I prefer letting the elders take care of all matters of discipline, order, and government because I don’t like conflict and don’t want to be bothered with it.
  • I prefer a church that focuses on social concerns because it makes me feel better, and I don’t have to be a Gospel salesman.
  • I prefer only the kinds of music that make me feel nostaligic. Or excited. Or happy. Or aesthetically fulfilled. Or whatever.

These are preferences that are sourced strictly in personal autonomy, and these preferences are selfish, misguided, and wicked. But not all preferences are autonomous and selfish. Some of them are principled and biblically demonstrable. Some churches are better at doing what the Bible says they should do, and we should prefer them. And while I am a huge advocate of persevering in one’s own church—even when it stumbles badly—because believers are duty-bound to fulfill their covenant responsibilities to their fellow-churchmembers, there are good reasons to leave one body and join another. For instance, it is appropriate to transfer membership because:

  • one prefers careful expositions of Scripture that patiently reprove, rebuke, and exhort—because that’s what the Bible teaches.
  • one prefers churches that demand mutual participation of its members in the life of the body—because that’s what the Bible teaches.
  • one prefers baptizing believers—because that’s what the Bible teaches.
  • one prefers taking communion with the whole gathered church, and only after addressing interpersonal conflict within that body—because that’s what the Bible teaches.
  • one prefers to participate in church discipline, not because he enjoys it, but because he believes that the Bible teaches that he must do so, and because it is ultimately in the best interest of the church.
  • one prefers to offer his time and money to God’s church primarily in pursuit of the mission of making disciples and building churches where we can mutually teach and encourage one another—because that’s what  the Bible teaches is the primary mission of the church.
  • one prefers a music ministry that includes psalms, involves mainly congregational singing, and employs songs that not only praise and worship God, but also teach and admonish one another with true and faithful words—because that’s what the Bible teaches. Or if one prefers musical fare that can reasonably sustain and cultivate the range of sentiments reflected in the biblical music of both testaments: praise, exultation, reverence, assurance, contemplative reflection on both history and theology, and especially the spirit of lament and penitence that dominate the musical selections found in the biblical record.

Of course, there will always be occasions in which believers, after careful study, disagree about what the Scriptures teach on several of these issues, or disagree mightily on the best ways to fulfill these revealed functions of the gathered church. In some cases (and perhaps more often than is supposed) the disagreements are small enough to tolerate. But at times churches who err in these matters leave the church’s work incomplete and its worshipers spiritually starved, bruised, dismayed, and discouraged—even angry at the despite they believe has been done to the person and cause of Christ.

In many cases it is quite possible for all involved to amicably and eagerly call each other brothers in Christ. But they eventually will come to worship separately, and should worship separately. And it is not (necessarily) because one party or the other has “made the worship experience about himself and not the God being worshiped.”

7 Responses

  1. “This unremitting theme has apparently now climaxed with the observation that music preference is perched at the very top of the list of bad reasons to leave a church. The millennials have spoken, and music has no meaning. (Amazing, isn’t it? Instead of the simple and irenic strategy of requiring unison recitations, God expects us to adorn these recitations with something totally meaningless and potentially contentious. Weird.) Don’t argue, just accept it.”

    If you are referring to the conversations on Sharper Iron about the 3 bad reasons to leave a church, I can at least speak on behalf of the people (because I have had many many conversations with them about music on Sharper Iron) who were agreeing with the author that none of them hold to such a low view of music the way that you describe it (music has no meaning).

  2. Mark Snoeberger

    I wrote my post before I knew of the conversation at Sharper Iron.

    But perhaps I could explain my comment. If music has no meaning, then I would agree 100% that it has absolutely no place at all in ecclesiastical decision-making. None. Period. If, however. music has meaning, whether inherent or functional, then it is cast necessarily into the epistemological realm for evaluation, and may be subjected to the tests of correspondence, coherence, or whatever tests of truth (universal or provincial) that one’s theological/philosophical system demands. And if these cannot be used as credible vehicles of evaluation, then what can?

  3. Mark, thanks for making the distinction here (too little made elsewhere!) between merely personal preferences and principled preferences that are backed up by sound reasoning. I don’t know if I agree with you about music being subject to criteria of truth (though poetry may be). But I do think music probably is subject to criteria of “correspondence” in other ways. It’s an imitative medium after all, and music can certainly imitate passions that are more appropriate in the worship of Baal than the worship of Christ.

  4. Zach

    What if your senior pastor’s doctrine is sound, but you find his mannerisms, or his storytelling excursions, or his topical presentations, or his altar calls off-putting. There may be some extreme instances where style alone is distressing enough to you to justify leaving. By and large, however, wouldn’t that be rather a pale excuse to go church-shopping?

    Furthermore, it would take multiple hearings of the preaching to make any sweeping judgments, right? “I didn’t hear enough about repentance the last few weeks”–but the sermon series was in the Song of Solomon. You’d need to attend for a good while to get a proper taste of that pulpit.

    Similarly, at the church you’re visiting, maybe you cringe when the worship band starts up “Our God”…or when the organ plays the intro for “In The Sweet By and By.” Perhaps your hackles raise when you see the pastor take the stage in a polo shirt and jeans…or when he breaks off his message for an impromptu testimony time. My point is that, in either case, we run the danger of elevating style ahead of 1) content, and 2) the heart. And if it does just boil down to a style issue, then we have to tread with caution lest our individual preferences rule us in a way contrary to the teaching of the NT.

  5. Mark Snoeberger

    Zach, I’m in substantive agreement with all you wrote. I hope I didn’t communicate hasty judgment or a critical spirit, and yes, as I mentioned in my original post, we do need to be reminded that such matters are more often than is supposed an occasion for tolerance and grace.

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