Music and the Church
Finding Our Voice in Worship
One of the clearest commands we have in Scripture regarding worship, is the command to come before the Lord with music and singing. The Old Testament is filled with such commands. When Israel celebrated their deliverance from the armies of Pharaoh at the Red Sea and sang the Song of Moses and the Song of Miriam, they were exhorted:
Sing to the LORD, For He has triumphed gloriously!
The horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea! (Genesis 15:21)
Many verses in the psalms call forth our joy and praise through music. We read in Psalm 33:2–3 for example:
Praise the LORD with the harp;
Make melody to Him with an instrument of ten strings.
Sing to Him a new song;
Play skillfully with a shout of joy.
We turn to the New Testament and Paul instructs us in Ephesians 5:
And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God (Ephesians 5:18–21).
And again in Colossians 3:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him (Colossians 3:16–17).
And it is not just here on earth that we are exhorted to praise God through music. In the book of Revelation we are given glimpses into worship in heaven. Revelation 15:2–4 records one of the songs we will sing:
And I saw something like a sea of glass mingled with fire, and those who have the victory over the beast, over his image and over his mark and over the number of his name, standing on the sea of glass, having harps of God. They sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying:“Great and marvelous are Your works,
Lord God Almighty!
Just and true are Your ways,
O King of the saints!
Who shall not fear You, O Lord, and glorify Your name?
For You alone are holy.
For all nations shall come and worship before You,
For Your judgments have been manifested.”
From this and similar passages we see that, in the courts of heaven, we will continue to lift praises to God with our voices and with musical instruments.
The command is clear—sounded throughout the Word of God. We are to sing before the Lord and play our instruments in praise to His name. But though the command is clear, what we should sing and what we should play is less clear. We are confronted with many choices, many styles and ideas about music in our day. What are we to bring and offer to God in worship through song? How do we choose music for worship that is God-centered and God-honoring? These are questions we face, week after week, as we plan and prepare for the corporate worship of God’s people. What makes a song conducive to worship? What makes one song a better choice than another when we plan our services and craft our orders of worship? Too many in our day choose songs simply out of expedience or personal preference. We can play this song well—we like this song. But we must go much further in evaluating music if our music is truly to honor God and reflect His glory and not simply reflect our own likes and limitations.
What are the filters we should have in place as we screen and select music for the purpose of congregational worship? I want to give you three filters that I have found useful in selecting music for worship:
1) Is it truthful?
2) Is it suitable?
3) Is it authentic?
We want music that is doctrinally sound, structurally sound (in both poetry and music) and congregationally sound.
Music Must Be Doctrinally Sound
We must begin with the text. Are the words of the song focused on God and on His Word? Are they substantial, saturated with truth, in submission to truth and informed by truth? If the song lacks truth or fails to conform to truth, we need go no further.
We must grill the text with questions. We should question the origin of the text: Who wrote the words? Why were the words written? We should question the message of the text: What do the words communicate? Is what the words communicate conducive to worship? We should question the purpose of the text: Do the words have a worthwhile and noble purpose? Does the purpose of the text serve us in our worship? For example:
Does it invite us into the presence of God?
Does it focus our attention on God—His attributes, and works?
Does it call upon God to meet with us in worship?
Does it declare and proclaim His Word to us?
Does it help us confess our sin?
Does it help us to rejoice in Christ and the forgiveness of sin?
Does it teach us by expounding the truth of God’s Word?
Does it commission us to go out and live in obedience?
Does it voice our prayers and petitions to God?
Does it remind us of the promises of His Word?
Does it express our praise and adoration to God?
Does it express our thanksgiving to God?
Does it voice our submission to God in obedience to His Word?
We should question the biblical moorings of the text: What Scripture passages are quoted or alluded to in the text? Do the words clearly and accurately teach and proclaim the Word of God?
We should question the theology of the text: What do the words teach us about the Person and work of the Father, the Son and the Spirit, about humanity, about sin, about the gospel of Christ, about the church? Does the music consistently set before the congregation the great doctrines of Scripture?
There are truths that we need reminded of frequently. We need to remember that our God is sovereign and in control of all things. We need to dwell often on justification by faith alone in Christ alone. We need to meditate on the imputed righteousness of Christ. Music can be a great blessing as it serves us in embedding these essential doctrines into our thinking. What we sing feeds our soul. We must be careful that our songs are spiritually healthy, theologically balanced, and doctrinally rich.
We should question the placement of the text within the service: Does the music before the sermon help us focus on God and enter into worship? Does the music we sing after the sermon hold us accountable to the truths we proclaimed in the message? Does the music as a whole support and undergird the preaching and teaching ministry of the church?
This is the first test—are the words to the music doctrinally sound? We want to sing words with substance and depth that reflect the truths of Scripture. We want music that is composed and designed to impart truth, not just create an experience that makes us feel good. We want to sing words that appropriately respond to and hold us accountable to Scripture. And we want to sing the words of Scripture itself (psalms and other passages). Test the music first by its veracity. It is true to the Word of God? If it passes this test, then next consider the structure.
Music Must Be Structurally Sound
Is the music well written and composed? Is the poetry clear, concise and well-crafted? Are the words and the tune singable? Are they free from worldly associations that would distract from worship and profane what God considers sacred? Do the tune and text together communicate a congruent message? There are many good tunes and good texts that are simply mismatched. One that I can remember while growing up was “Love Lifted Me.” It begins:
I was sinking deep in sin far from the peaceful shore,
Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more…
The words are set to a joyful tune—a good tune, but very mismatched, at least at the beginning of the verse, with words that are trying to communicate desperation and our hopeless state when we are outside of Christ. We want to wed music and words that strengthen the message, not confuse it.
One example of what I would consider a well-matched text and tune is 175 in the Baptist Hymnal (1991):
“Man of Sorrows,” What a Name, for the Son of God who came.
Ruined sinners to reclaim, Hallelujah, What a Savior!
Both the text and the tune communicate a wonder and profoundness of what God has accomplished for us in the gospel.
Again, we must ask questions: Why was the music composed? What does the music communicate? Is what the music communicates conducive to worship? Can the music be used effectively to accompany acts and words of worship? Are the associations of the music with other texts, other messages, or other purposes too strong to allow the tune to transfer into sacred use? For example, if I were writing the words to a call to worship, inviting people to come and worship God, I would not want to set the words to the tune of “Here Comes Santa Claus!” That is not to say that the tune is bad, evil or even secular. It does however, at least here in America, have secular associations that make it entirely unfit for use in worship. The church must take great care in taking music from the world for its own use, especially when uniting music to Scripture. The associations of the songs with secular or even wicked contexts may be too strong to allow the music to be useful in the church.
Although we have freedom to create and enjoy music in a wide array of activities and venues, not all music is conducive to worship. A church service, a football game and a parade all include music that we can enjoy to the glory of God. But a worship service is not a football game or a parade. Each activity requires music suitable to its purpose. Music that we enjoy hearing at venues outside of the church may not be appropriate or fitting for the purpose of worship. In worship we are pursuing a well-defined purpose and seeking to communicate a clear message. As we choose music for worship, we must be wise in finding tunes that will serve as a suitable accompaniment to those thoughts, actions and elements that Scripture affirms as appropriate for worship. In worship we are communing with the Sovereign God and proclaiming His Word. Our music should reflect the significance and importance of our endeavor.
In the end we must judge the worth or merits of the song to serve as an offering of worship. As we measure the worth of a song we weigh its value according to three standards: insight, perfection and inexhaustibility.
Does it add something of value to the service?
Does it communicate clearly? Or does it confuse?
Does it help us effectively express what we want to say to God, what we want to be before God, what we want to do in obedience to His Word?
Not is it perfect in the sense of “without error,” but is it complete?
Does it say all it needs to say?
Or is something left out? Is something out of place?
Does it represent the best of what we can bring to God in worship through our musical style? Is it a sacrifice of praise in which we have invested ourselves? Or is it just something to sing? Is it just something to fill an empty space in our order of worship?
Is it memorable? Is it worth remembering?
Is it worth singing again?
Has it stood the test of time?
Can you sing often in your services without it wearing out over time? Does it become richer and more meaningful each time it is sung? Or does it prove to be shallow and spent after a few hearings? Can it be appreciated across generations or even across cultures or languages?
These are some of the filters we can use as we think through our music. Once you have found music that is doctrinally sound and structurally sound, there is still one more test to consider:
Music Must Be Congregationally Sound
We must sing music that is sound in doctrine and well-composed, but our music must also be an authentic expression of the church body. It must help us voice our Christian experience—not just our joy and our praise, but our longings, our struggles with sin and temptation, our failures and sorrows, our victories and successes, our shame and repentance, our faith and adoration, our awe of God and our own sense of inadequacy, our commitment and devotion—and much more!
When we select music for worship, we are choosing music that will be voiced by the whole congregation. There may be music we sing individually, with our families at home, or at other venues that would not work well in corporate worship in the church. And so we must ask of what we sing: Will this be understood by the congregation? Can they comprehend this? Can they sing this? Can they say this? Can they express this well? Does the level of difficulty, instrumentation and musical style fit the congregation? Can the song be embraced by the people? Not just can they learn the notes and sing the right words, but can they sing it from their hearts? The music we sing should be an authentic voice of our people!
So how do we determine our voice? Maybe we should first ask:
What shapes the voice of a church?
There are many influences that help shape the musical voice of a church. Six of the most significant are its gifts, its understanding of its purpose, its theology, its heritage, its joys and trials, and its expectations.
1. The voice of the church is shaped largely by its gifts—its leaders, its musicians, its people. Everyone whom God brings together in a local church contributes to the voice of that church. We have One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of us all—we share a common faith and should hold to the same truth, the same Word. But churches are also each unique, each with unique experiences and gifts.
Though we must speak as one, no two voices will sound exactly alike. A song that works well in one church may fall flat in another. A small church that has only one member who can play the piano will have a different voice than a large church where God in His providence has assembled several accomplished musicians. A church where the music is primarily led by a pipe organ will have a different sound than a church led by piano, keyboard, guitar, bass, flute and trumpet. The musical gifts in the congregation, the leadership gifts of those who plan and teach and oversee the ministry of the church—all help determine a church’s voice.
2. The voice of the church is also shaped by its understanding of its purpose. As the leadership and the congregation work through priorities and ask the important question: What are we doing here? Their answer will in part shape their voice.
The congregation must have a clear understanding of its purpose. Why do the people of God gather together each Lord’s Day and why God has united them together as one body? What do we see as our primary purpose as the body of Christ gathered together as a covenanted body of believers?
- Teaching people the Word of God
- Evangelizing the lost and reaching them with the gospel
- Bringing people into close intimate communion with God
- Motivating people to love and obedience to God
- Helping people grow through meaningful relationships
- Glorifying God as the majestic Almighty One in worship
- Bearing witness that the Christian faith is relevant to our age
All of these are good purposes and there are many more I could list. The order, emphasis and balance (or lack thereof) that each church brings to these good and necessary purposes will largely determine its form of worship, the choice of its songs and the shape of its voice.
3. The voice of the church is shaped by its theology. Our understanding of God, the gospel and the Christian life will have an impact on our musical voice. What we know and believe concering the truths of Scripture will be largely displayed in our singing. We want our music to reflect a God-centered theology, not man-centered. As we evaluate and ask questions of the text (as we discussed above), our grasp of truth will inform our efforts. As we seek words that reflect the truths of the whole of Scripture—as we try to select songs that reflect the full scope of our response to God in worship, our understanding of theology will largely influence our choices and shape our voice.
4. The voice of the church is shaped by its heritage. Our time and place in history will have a part in God’s providence in determining our voice. What musical instruments are available to us? In what language will we sing? What songs from past generations have we inherited and learned? What songs are being written in our own day?
As a church we should desire to sanctify the best of our musical traditions available to us in the time and place in which we live. We should also remember the best contributions to church music of past generations. We should continue to embrace great hymns of the faith such as the “Holy, Holy, Holy” and the Doxology. We must remember that we are only a part of God’s great redemptive work through the ages. The Kingdom of God is much larger than our own fellowship, our own associations and our own comfort zones.
5. The voice of the church is shaped by its joys and trials. As God is providentially at work in the life of the church, He will shape its voice. Sometimes He will do extraordinary things in His providence that will embed a song into the voice of the church.
In the summer of 2004 our young people from Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida went to the Saved By Faith Youth Challenge in Panama City Beach. There they learned the song “Made Me Glad” by Miriam Webster. A portion of the words to that song declare to God:
You are my Shield, my Strength, my Portion, Deliverer,
My Shelter, Strong Tower, My very present help in time of need.
A few weeks after we introduced the song to our congregation, Hurricane Charley hit Southwest Florida. Because the song was fresh in our memory, many sang that song while riding out the storm. When we met for the first time after the hurricane, we sang that song together—in a dark, hot building, no light, no air-conditioning, but sweet and precious fellowship as we rejoiced together at God’s mercy and kindness in keeping us safe. Now when we sing those words together in worship, they are not only theological truths, but we can remember place and time and event where God showed Himself strong for us as a church. He was our “Shield, our Strength, our Portion, Deliverer, our Shelter, Strong Tower, our very present help in time of need.” And He continues to be so. As we respond in biblical ways to our struggles and successes—as we keep the gospel before us and grow in repentance and faith—as we keep our hope and confidence in Christ—this will have an impact on our musical voice. The providence of God can be powerful in shaping the voice of His people.
6. The voice of the church is shaped by its expectations. If we do not expect God to continue to shape and mold us—if we are not growing and maturing together in love and unity, our voice will grow stagnant and dim. We must help the church in our day find its musical voice in worship and add its voice to the praise of God through the ages.
How can we help a church find its voice?
1. To be authentic we must be thoughtful and deliberate. It takes time and energy to find and prepare music—to plan for worship. Arranging a meeting between God and His people can never be something we take lightly or engage in half-heartedly.
In the Psalms we have precedence for being thoughtful in our planning of music and worship, intentional in our choices of tunes and instruments to accompany our singing. We see inscriptions giving directions for specific instruments, specific tunes and specific occasions. This is an example we should follow as we find and compile the music that will carry our church’s voice. If we are to see improvement and growth, we must be thoughtful and deliberate in our planning and preparation.
2. To be authentic we must be committed to truth. We must be more concerned that God is rightly proclaimed and His Word is clearly set forth, than we are about hearing our favorite songs in worship. We must be more concerned that our music rightly reflects the truth of who God is, than sounding like the world we are trying to evangelize.
We should not look to the world to set our standards and shape our voice. This is a great dilemma in our day. In a failed quest to be relevant in the eyes of the world, the church is largely looking to the world to set and establish musical style. Unlike many eras of the past in music history—where the church determined the direction and bent of musical composition and the world was mimicking the church—today the roles are largely reversed. Marketing and sales seem to have more influence over the anthems and songbooks being churned out than the glory of God and a desire to make Him known.
Compare this to what God teaches us about worship in the Psalms. The Psalms are a book of worship. Its very contents are the songs of worship. But even its structure teaches us about worship. As you read through the book of Psalms, especially if you read the psalms in order from 1 to 150, you will notice that praise increasingly, more and more, dominates the prayers and songs of God’s people. Early on there are many petitions and laments, but as you near the end of the Psalter, these petitions and laments grow fewer and fewer until from about Psalm 145 to the end there is only pure praise. Our end in worship is the glory of God. In the end, it is all about Him. But look how God chose to begin the book. What would you expect at the beginning of a book of worship? An exhortation to praise? An opening prayer? No, God instead begins with a blessing and warning:
Blessed is the man
Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly,
Nor stands in the path of sinners,
Nor sits in the seat of the scornful;
But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
And in His law he meditates day and night (Psalm 1:1–2).
The opening words of the Psalms are a warning to God’s people not to imitate the world, not to go after the world. Rather, we are to be a people who delight in the Word of God. In a day when the church is looking to the world to set the pace and birth the styles, this is a warning we must heed in church music. As God’s people we must be committed to truth—committed to accurately reflecting the splendor and holiness of God, willing to set aside anything that diminishes that glory.
3. To be authentic we must embrace the new as well as the old. We must keep a healthy balance of old and new in our music. We must continue to sing and cherish the old, established, proven hymns. God has been at work in every age. His Kingdom is greater than just what is happening right now. We are but a vapor and He is infinitely great. We acknowledge His greatness and our own smallness when we look beyond the present and include the great hymns of the faith from ages past in our worship today.
But we also must not disregard the new songs of our day. The voice of the church is not stagnant. As God is at work adding to His church, sanctifying new gifts, growing us in the knowledge of truth, there is always a new song and fresh praise. I find it helpful in sorting through music to think in terms of four categories:
1)The first is what I call “Discarded Music”
This is music of the past—some of it of poor quality and questionable usefulness, even in its day—but also music that may have had a brief usefulness, but for whatever reason, it did not endure or become a lasting contribution of its age or generation. We know the past largely by what has endured, but every age has had its share of discarded music. History has proven most music does not last beyond its own generation. We should generally avoid what has faded away. However, once in a while, rummaging through the forgotten music of the past, you just might find a discarded jewel.
2)The second is “Treasured Music”
This is also music of the past, but this music has endured and become a lasting contribution of its age or generation. It has value and quality and depth beyond its age. Here is where you find the great hymns of the faith—music we should continue to value and sing, remembering that we are part of God’s Kingdom through the ages. I would include in this category hymns such as the Doxology, “A Mighty Fortress,” and “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
3)Three: “Temporary Music”
This is music of our day that seems below standard and destined to pass away. Some of it may have a brief usefulness, but much of it lacks those qualities of worth we considered a few moments ago. In general we should avoid this music as well.
4)And fourth: “Potential Treasured Music”
This is music of our day that seems destined for endurance. Search for it and embrace it. While contemporary music is the hardest for us to judge and discern, and no one can tell exactly which songs God will choose to preserve in His providence for ages to come, we should be musical treasure hunters. A few of my choices for this category include “In Christ Alone,” “How Deep the Father’s Love” and “I Will Glory in My Redeemer.”
We must guard against two false views of church music:
1)The music of past generations is superior to the music of today, so we should be content to sing only the old proven songs.
2)Music of past generations is no longer relevant to today, so we should be content to only the new songs of our day and time.
Neither view is true, helpful or acceptable. We appreciate and benefit from great preachers and great messages from the past—but at the same time we continue to preach and write new sermons, instructing the people of our day in the truth of God’s Word. We are enriched by the insightful, deep prayers of saints of past, such as the Puritans—but at the same time, we keep praying, voicing to God the concerns of our day, the cries of our hearts in our words. We must strive for this balance in our music as well, enjoying the fruits of our heritage in church music, and adding our own new song to God’s praise through the ages.
4. To be authentic we must nurture and pray for our gifts. Every church has its own voice, its own gifts, its own strengths and weaknesses. We must avoid trying to make the church fit a determined mold or be just like the church down the street. We must help the church develop its own gifts to God’s glory.
We should pray for gifts:
- Pastors and elders who understand the value of music and are committed to helping the church find its musical voice in worship
- Worship leaders who understand both music and theology
- Service musicians—instrumentalists and vocalists—who are committed to serving together in a humble and gracious spirit (not lone-rangers who ride in to save the day, or prima-donnas who must be pampered and coaxed and delicately tip-toed around)
- People who are committed to honoring God with their music and who are willing to esteem others better than themselves. People who are committed to unity in Christ though coming together from different generations, cultures, experiences, education backgrounds and abilities—all speaking to one another—ministering to one another—in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in the heart to the Lord
Pray that God would add such gifts to our churches and that He would grow and sanctify and mature those who are already serving.
5. To be authentic we must be have patience and humility.
We need patience—great music does not happen over night. It takes time to develop and nurture musical gifts. It takes time and many hours of rehearsal for individual musicians to become a well-blended ensemble. It takes time for choirs and congregations to learn and embrace good music. We must be committed to reformation over the long term and pray that God would continue to grow us spiritually and musically.
And we need humility—worship is about God—it is not about us. We need to cast off and put down this idea that church music should conform to what I want to hear. Whether it be: “I only want to sing my music—not all that old stuff.” Or “I only want to sing what I already know—don’t teach me anything new.” The voice of the church is not the voices of individuals all doing their own thing. It is the voice of patience, humility and charity as we come together in unity in a common purpose to glorify God. When Paul exhorts us to sing “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” he does not say “singing what you want most to hear” or “singing what you find most comfortable.” He says “speaking to one another.” In verse 21 he says: “submitting to one another in the fear of God.” This is esteeming others better than ourselves. This is saying that the glory of God and the voice of His church are more important than me.
At Grace Baptist Church we often sing many older songs—some that would not be first on my own list of favorites. But when I speak to the older members of our congregation, what I find is that they cherish these songs. It is their voice. It is the contribution of their generation to the praise of God through the ages. When they sing these songs they can remember place and time and event where God made Himself known by His Word and His providence. It is their genuine expression of praise. And they are in our church—it vital part of who we are—among the precious gifts that God has given to us. They make up a part of our voice. So all of us, young and old, learn and sing these songs from the heart in our worship.
Singing songs that may not be our preference—new songs or old songs—songs that stretch us and challenge us—singing these songs gives us opportunity to consider others before ourselves. It reminds us that worship is not about us—worship is much greater—worship is about God. It teaches us charity and unites us. It grows us spiritually and musically as a congregation.
Paul also says “making melody in your hearts to the Lord.” We sing from the heart (not just the lips) and we sing to the Lord (to His glory and His praise, not our own). We must ask: What will best “speak to one another” and communicate clearly the truths of God's Word? What will most honor Him? What will best declare His glory and carry His Word and rightly make Him known? Paul says of Christ in verse 9 of Philippians 2: “Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven and of those on earth and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” This is the goal of God-centered church music—to see every knee humbly bowed down at the name of Jesus and to hear every tongue confess that He is Lord to the glory of God the Father. May God be pleased to make it so among us.