Tozer on Worship Music: An Evaluation

We’ve gathered much of what Tozer wrote on music and hymnody. Having done so, some reflections on his writings might be helpful. I notice three outstanding features of Tozer’s approach to worship.

First, it’s clear that Tozer made an attempt to understand poetry and music. Tozer did not have to become a literary or musical critic in his office as pastor. He simply had to become competent enough to judge inferior from superior; ugly from beautiful, simple from trite. (No doubt, he read critics in this pursuit.) His criticisms seen in the quotations we’ve looked at demonstrate that Tozer did not simply tow a party-line, or reject songs for political reasons. He judged works for their meaning: for their beauty, truth and fitness for Christian devotion. His compilation, The Christian Book of Mystical Verse, is a collection of superior Christian verse. Tozer was not copy-catting another man’s taste when he put this collection together. It emerged from careful judgement of individual pieces. Remember, Tozer educated himself while cutting pieces of rubber in a factory in Akron. What’s our excuse?

Second, Tozer developed a healthy catholicity when evaluating the expressions of piety from the historic church. Tozer’s own theological leanings were baptistic, Arminian, Holiness, Keswick, with some dispensationalism thrown in. Had he wanted hymns to reflect only this slice of Christianity, his hymnbook would have been slim indeed – or made up entirely of A.B. Simpson hymns. Tozer was, thankfully, bigger than that. He understood the principle of catholic sentiment: when Christians of different ages testify similarly of their devotion. These testimonies are different, but equivalent. They represent a kind of consensus of what Christians have always felt towards God in worship. Whether it came from the Roman Catholics Bernard of Clairvaux and Frederick Faber, the pietist Tersteegen, the Lutheran Gerhardt, Anglicans Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, or Presbyterian Anne Cousin, Tozer could find the catholic affections in their verse amidst the errors of their churches. And he smelt a rat when people tried to use hymnbooks as political tools to advance their own doctrinal agenda.

Third, Tozer’s writings in these matters were after one thing: fitting worship. He had no interest in aesthetic refinement divorced from worship. If Tozer could spot beauty, it was because he was after the beauty of holiness. If he called for true sentiments in the lyrics of hymnody, it was because he wanted to worship in Spirit and in truth. He raged against the trivialisation of worship not because it violated his own aesthetic sensibilities. Rather, his aesthetic sensibilities had been so trained in the service of worshipping God, and God’s name is profaned when worship is trivialised. He knew the dangers of churches that become proud of their beautiful worship and are crossless and Christless. For Tozer, truth, goodness, and beauty are not the Trinity. They are indispensable for the worship of the Trinity.

Tozer understood the dire need of the hour: restored worship. Our churches have lost worship, because they have lost judgement. Discernment has evaporated, and with it, the ability to judge what is fitting for worshipping God and what is not. In response to this worship crisis, it is important to notice what Tozer did not try to do. He did not try to restore worship by calling for resolutions at the Christian & Missionary Alliance annual meeting. He did not try to restore worship by writing a book and then touting it as the solution. He did not try to build a coalition with enough clout to enforce his views on worship. He did not set up The Christian Book of Mystical Verse as the canon for private or corporate worship. These are political solutions, solutions that are tempting only when we do not understand how sensibilities are formed or how taste develops.

Tozer got down to the hard work of discriminating between good and bad. He opened dusty books that were not popular, relevant, or endorsed by celebrities. He searched, he read, he prayed, he sang, he wrote sermons, hymns and prayers, and then he wrote down his informed judgements for others to see. In his writings, he tried to revive the conversation that true culture is, a conversation of what is fitting and right and true – with particular respect to Christian piety and worship. These approaches, to me, represent much of what we must do in this new Dark Age.

7 Responses to “Tozer on Worship Music: An Evaluation”

  1. Dave Says:

    May the seed of Tozer’s work find fertile soil in our hearts – to produce a crop that will glorify the God he loved and loves. Thank you for these insightful observations.

  2. David Says:

    Indeed. Notwithstanding his faults, Tozer provides shepherds with an excellent model.

  3. paul Says:

    I’m not sure I understand you here. Why can’t a more “political” approach exist alongside the changing hearts and minds approach? Is it wrong to attempt to organize a revival of reverent worship into some sort of movement? It seems to me that is difficult for individuals who resonate with these ideas to find an assembly of like minded believers seeking to put these ideas into practice. I’m not sure how it would all work, but I would like to see more than a few churches here and there. It seems the momentum the other way is so great – doesn’t there need to be more than a conversation – some kind of political organizing of the convictions resulting from the conversation?

    • David Says:


      Important question. Worship, ordinate affection, and the consequent culture it creates cannot be imposed, enforced or otherwise produced by some kind of activism. That’s simply not how culture works, and it’s not how the affections are shaped. Culture takes millennia of work, with people working within a tradition, testifying of their devotion to God, using (and developing) the tools that their forebearers handed them. It’s an inheritance, and a tenuously-held one, at that. Once you’ve lost it, as we have, you cannot put it back on like a suit, or a hat. That’s where so many Christian leaders get it wrong – being pragmatists, populists and activists, and looking for short-cut solutions to the fundamental problem of a disordered imagination. If people’s sensibilities are misshapen, the solution is never political. Worship, and the worship-tools that culture provides (a sense of the true, good, and beautiful) are matters that must be cultivated, not imposed by diktat.

      Nor can we simply use the old stuff. Culture does not live in a museum or gallery. People make up a culture. Culture is made up of the moral and aesthetic consensus of a people who share a common sentiment towards God, man and the world. Culture resides in the common judgements of a people. If the people in a culture no longer feel towards God as our ancestors did, you cannot make them feel that way with a rulebook, a set of resolutions, or some celebrity-endorsed event. Even if we replaced the hymnbooks of millions of churches with good stuff, this by itself would not change matters. (It might stop the bleeding, but it does not change much. The people in those churches would be singing the better choices of their leaders, but they may have not made those better choices themselves. They might not have developed an understanding of what makes those hymns better.) If the members of those churches did not learn good judgement from their family, church or wider culture, no book, conference, hymnal or organised hierarchy is going to make it happen.

      What you can do is begin again with the thing that culture does: produce sound judgement. You can begin teaching at home, and at church, how to judge the true, the good, and the beautiful. You can refer to the tradition we abandoned, learn from it, and then try to produce works that express ordinate affection to God. In other words, you begin to cultivate all over again. I think Tozer saw that, and gave it his best shot.

      On the other hand, can like-minded churches co-operate? Certainly, and I think they should. Indeed, so few are in sympathy with these ideas, that it’s important that we find fellowship together. And I think that churches that recognise the problem and agree with Tozer’s response can do more than simply feel fraternal. Some kind of co-operation is desirable, but it’s important that we understand that the answer does not lie there. Until pastors recognise that the fundamental problems of the hour are warped imaginations and inordinate affections leading to false worship, until they realise that these are matters of the conscience and imagination which can only be slowly and patiently cultivated through the hard work of developing discernment, then committees, coalitions, denominations are exercises in arranging deck-chairs on the Titanic. They merely deflect attention from the crying problem: we don’t worship like our fathers did, and we don’t even agree on what it means to worship God.

      Not sure if I’ve answered your question, come back at me if I haven’t.

  4. paul Says:

    You make it sound pretty hopeless. So what happens as people begin to develop discernment – where do they go to church? They look around and there is no where to go. It seems to me that some kind of organized effort to plant churches is going to be required. Isn’t that the New Testament way to spread the faith?

    • David Says:

      Well, it’s never hopeless, with a sovereign God behind us. But it’s also not business as usual after a cultural collapse. Don’t get me wrong. We need church-planting, and lots of it. We need Christians working together. But when those Christians plant churches, their focus must be on first principles, on growing the discernment needed to worship. I think people are only beginning to wake up to the scope of the problem, and there are still a thousand voices out there applying quick-fixes. I’d like to see a whole bunch of like-minded Christians assisting each other in efforts to see conservative churches planted, but from where I’m standing, I don’t see it yet. And for the record, I’ve tried to bring about more than just an informal fellowship of other churches in my city, to help pastors with these ideas. And we support church-planters and missionaries. But many, including those doing some of the church-planting and pastoring, still think the answer is in more dispensational teaching, ‘gospel-centered’ministry, stronger Calvinism, less Calvinism, expository preaching, etc. When I can count more pastors than fingers on my hand agreeing that the problem is lost worship, I’ll mark that day on my calendar.

  5. paul Says:

    Thanks for bearing with my questions and sharing your insights.

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