Music In Worship

music in worship
If you have ever set foot inside a church, you will have encountered people who are undecided about the role of music in the worship life of the family of God. To avoid silly arguments, its best to look at the bible rather than peoples personal taste. The bible does not give us specific guidelines about songs and genres of music. What it does give us, however, are principles regarding the holiness of God, and the nature of worship, and if we believe that the bible is the inspired word of God, we are to cling to those principles.

More Than Words

One of the interesting things about the church is that we are always instinctively trying to figure out a new way of doing something. This not only effects our evangelism but our church life and our worship. Christians are always trying to work out how to make people evangelise, how to make people come to church, and how to make people worship. “And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42-47) The bible defines only one way: they must be regenerate, filled with the Holy Spirit and growing in maturity. Otherwise there will constantly be a need for a new invention after new invention to prop the whole thing up all the time. In a word, entertainment. That music, the lights, action and a preacher who has funny or heart rending stories all go towards the entertainment. You leave satisfied and contented emotionally. That is a sort of man centeredness which was not common amongst believers in the 1800s. It is interesting to note that one of the marks of true response to God found in the Old Testament is found in v43; the awe of God (Psalm 33:8). Worship involves coming to God through words, and saying to Him “Wow, this is what you have done, this is who you are”. We are saying it to God in the context of praise. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!” (Psalm 98:4) One of the marks of true worship is singing with great zeal, making together a joyful noise, shouting to God in song, even if you can’t hold a note. When I was growing up, I had a mentor who couldn’t hold a note, but I enjoyed singing with him because he praised God with such gusto that it didn’t matter that most of the notes weren’t right. His heart was an overflowing response to God, moved to praise by the Holy Spirit. Of course, a lack of this kind of praise is not evidence that someone doesn’t love Jesus, but often comes out of a culture in which other people do your worship for you.

Vain Repetition

The great hymns of the faith that Christians have sung for hundreds of years are often rejected by churches because they are irrelevant and boring and are replaced by repetitious emotional expression. A repetition of “what I feel”, or “what God makes me feel” are a good part of the lyrical content of many worship songs. “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:1-9) The words of true worship need to reflect the majesty and the dignity of God and worship of Him, and be based on truth and not on my emotional state. The hymns that people have sung for generations, and more importantly Psalms that are the actual word of God, are based on truth as revealed on scripture and on music that matches the majesty and dignity of the words. One of the things that sets God’s truth apart is its endurance. Notice the songs come in waves (do you even remember what songs were being sung 5, 10, 20 years ago…who remembers “The Happy Song”, or “He’s the Champion of the World”?), whereas “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and “Be Thou My Vision” have been sung for hundreds of years. Jesus specifically talked about vain repetition. Why? “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.” (Matthew 6:7) Self-induced trance like spirituality that comes from repeating a pounding, throbbing message is not a distinctive of Christianity but is to be found in many other religions. Even in Catholicism, there is an emphasis on the repetitive nature of chants and repeated lines in order to get ones self in a correct contemplative state of worship. However, worship of God is to be Holy, set apart from all religions. If anything, we should be on guard against the very thing that Jesus warned us about. Contrast this self-induced spiritual power with the power of the Psalms, songs which declare the Authority, the Kingship, the righteous rule of Christ, there is no repeated mantra in that. They are powerful declarations which contain nothing about the feelings of the writer induced by the divine, and everything about God. As humans, we seem to associate certain kinds of music with worship. One of our biggest problems is that when a certain style becomes ingrained in our minds as part of worship, and we are only responding emotionally to the kind of music, we are really just worshipping ourselves rather than God. We want to feel a certain way that we associate with worship, so if a backbeat does it for you, or a pipe organ, or just voice, or guitar or tambourine or whatever, that is what we consider worship, and nothing else. If it is just something that tickles our emotions, we are becoming worshippers of ourselves. We are not worshipping God, we are simply worshipping the feeling that we are having about God. Subtle but quite a different focus “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8) “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) Its important to remember that our salvation comes through faith, not feelings. Our feelings are inconsistent and unreliable and are generated by a heart that is deceitful. If we base our relationship with God on wavering feelings, we will often be feeling like our connection to God is offline when really it is the same as before. John Calvin was hesitant to use music in corporate worship because he was concerned that the people would become idolatrous of their feelings. He wrote: “We should be very careful that our ears be not more attentive to the melody than our minds to the spiritual meaning of the words.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III). While we should not abandon music because of these dangers, we need to be aware of the danger that exists so that we can avoid worshipping ourselves because of how we feel in worship. Attaching a style, a mode or a sound to worship also leaves us not being honest with ourselves. We are effectively saying about our church experience “I am only here as long as we do something that I want, what I desire and what I like”. It has to be clearly pointed out again that worship of a Holy Righteous God is not about me feeling like I have been satisfied with what I wanted, it is the lifelong realisation that I am submitting myself to the Lordship, to the kingship and to the majesty of Almighty God and I want to guard the way my flesh wants to worship Him and look to God’s word and ask God to instruct me to worship Him. “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7)

The Mind & Emotions In Worship

There is a serious danger in having good head knowledge, good solid sermons, good content in worship, but the content not going beyond head knowledge, not reaching the heart and not stirring the emotions. This kind of knowledge doesn’t impact the conscience and doesn’t woo the soul with the affections of the truths of God’s word (Hosea 11:4). Many churches have the intellectual part down to a T, but the heart is all but missing (Isaiah 29:13). The other danger is a focus on emotions, to engage the emotions of the soul before you have informed the mind. This leads to short-lived worship with no lasting value. “And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.” (Mark 4:16-17) This is quite evident in music that stirs up the emotion, but that also become repetitive. People get excited and emotional because of the beat or the held chords or the piano or whatever it is. This kind of emotion lack the heart being moved by the propositional truth of the word of God. Sometimes, people get so excited by the music that the sermon seems like an afterthought, a letdown, and so is not content rich. Both the sermon and worship suffer and the church suffers equally as the one with no heart. The puritans are a good example of the balance required with music in worship. They made sure that the music coincided with the spirit and reverence of the sermon. In some instances, if the sermon was a warning to the people, the music carried the same warning element as well. If the text was one of comfort, the music would carry a tone that reflected that comfort. In this way, regardless of the tone of the text, the worship is more seamless.

The Essence Of Worship

“Through Him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Hebrews 13:15-17) Worship may include music, but the bible does not relegate worship to one element of music. Worship effects and impacts every area of the believers life. It should affect the way we wake up each day, the way we talk with our family members, the way we perform our job. Of course we are to find ourselves singing and praising while we think on the goodness of God, His mercy and grace, but the pitfall is when we begin to think that we are not worshipping if we are going to work on Monday, that we think we worship when we are together with God's family on a Sunday. Music seems to be elevated in some contexts to being above the teaching of God’s word. For many churches music is the focus and the teaching is secondary (even if it is not the case in the leadership, it is a sort of generally understood idea that people don’t come to hear from God through His word. One of the strongest arguments for belonging to a particular Australian denomination is that “I can tolerate bad teaching as long as the music is good”. Something is wrong there. In Acts 2, we see 4 things the church is centred around: doctrine, fellowship, communion and prayer. Singing is a part of that but it is not an ultimate requirement. If worship is not worship until we sing, then that differs from what we see in the bible. The worship of God does not always require singing.

Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs

“And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:19-21) Notice that the psalms are an integral part of what we are called to do in worship of God. God, in His own words, has given us music that was used in temple worship, in ancient Israel, and by Jesus (scholars agree that Psalm 118:1-29 was likely sung in Matthew 26:30). Of course we don’t have the melodies for these, but there are plenty of gifted musicians who are able to put these songs to music relevant to the tone of the psalm. It should be pointed out that since they are part of the call in the bible to worship, we shouldn’t exclude Psalms from musical worship. The psalms have a way of keeping us from being self-centred, no matter the circumstances of life. They are to God and about God, even when the writers are in the worst situations and the most miserable times in their lives. Of course, we don’t limit ourselves to the Psalms, because God continued to work and be revealed in the New Testament through Christ. There are hymns, those songs that take the concepts of scripture and exalt the name of Jesus though their singing. That is really the definition of a hymn, and it is interesting to point out that the tunes and metres of some songs considered sacred were in fact previously gratuitous bar room songs, to whose melodies hymn writers wrote words that reflected scriptural doctrine. God centred hymns are just that, so even if we do talk about ourselves, it is in relationship to God, about us in relative terms to the great mighty magnificent pure creator and sustainer of the universe, and they are to be sung to Him. “…for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’ (from Cretica by Epimenides) ; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’(from Phainomena by Aratus) (Acts 17:28) “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” (from Cretica by Epimenides) This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith," (Titus 1:9-13) It is also interesting to note that spiritual songs are in this list. Given that Paul quoted the Greek poets Artus and Epimenides on several occasions, hijacking their poetry about Zeus to be focussed on the great I Am, it stands to reason that there are sections of poetry and music that can be transplanted from a context that does not honour God and used to promote and praise God, as long as the following is also true: that each form of musical worship carries reverence to Christ. Notice too how Paul in the book of Titus uses the song to talk about Godly leadership and also by contrast, ungodly people and what is coming to them, in the same way that the Psalms do with regards to the enemies of God. The use of the poetry still gives reverence to God while not sugarcoating the truth that needs to be shared. Another example of God directed songwriting in scripture is found in Philippians 2:6-11 “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, But emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Here we have what seems to be an ancient hymn, used by the early church in order to sing truth back to Him. In a sense, it is a little like a spiritual song as it would be singing Gods word back to Him in some form.

Serving Each Other

Here we come to something that might get the ire of the reader, but it is scriptural and is useful in understanding worship in a corporate context: the regulative principle. Thanks to taste and the variety of musical forms, you have disagreement on whether the music should be acapella, should have one instrument or more than one etc… There are some that teach that musical accompaniment was only for those worshipping God in the Old Testament because it was part of a type of Christ and now that it is fulfilled, we no longer need that form. Others take the opposite pole and try and argue that instruments are an essential ingredient to musical worship. Then there are some that deem certain instruments to be suitable and others not to be. It gets quite ridiculous, but some simple guidelines make everything a lot clearer. Circumstances of worship must serve the mode of worship, and the mode of worship must serve the element. Basically, if instrumentation takes away from the singing, it needs to be addressed. If it is accompanying, and aiding, and enhancing the singing, it is serving the worship of God. It all comes back to the idea of singing and making melody in your heart to God. If those things aren’t at the fore, the balance is not right. The clearest indicator of the use of musical instruments in worship can be found in the Old Testament: to raise sounds of joy (1 Chronicles 15:16). Of course music has enormous potential for affecting the emotions, of tugging at the heart in all sorts of ways, and so it needs to be used in a discerning manner. Also, to simply see joy as momentary happiness and excitement is to overlook the wealth of joy found in God and music which gives praise and reverence to His name. The deepest part of a river is not the rapids, it is placid on the surface. Often there is great joy in the hearts of those engaged in musical worship to the point where they are bursting and yet the surface is calm. Just remember, the purpose of worship is not for your entertainment, its between an individual and God. “The purpose of music in the worship of God is to codify the truth so that it can be sung to the glory of God down through the generations so as to unify the church.” (Douglas Bond) Music is not just to unify the local church as a group, but to unify the catholicity of the church down through the centuries. Part of singing the same profitable songs that previous generations have sung is to maintain a relationship with the previous generation of Christians. All too often it is the differences in music between generations that divides us, and this can be easily remedied, if we remember that we are the family of God, and we break generational divisions down as we are called to (1 Timothy 5:1-2). Music in worship then has 3 purposes: to codify the truth, to unify the church through the ages, and to glorify God.

Questions to ask about music in worship:

  1. Is the music emphasising the teaching or does the music become most prominent? “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:16-17) Singing is designed to teach us, to get God’s word to live inside of us, to teach us, to reprimand us, to encourage us to exhalt the name of Jesus and thank God for all that He is and does.
  2. Does the music deliver accurate instruction? The lyrics must have biblical integrity in order to be useful for teaching and admonition.
  3. Does the music come from a wrong motive? (1 Kings 12:25-33) Jereboam set up a whole worship system so that people would come and worship with him… he was more interested in attracting people to himself that promoting worship of God the way God had decreed.
  4. Does the music worship the right God in the wrong way? In Leviticus 10:1 Nadab and Abihu offered what was considered “strange fire” on the altar of God. Another example of this kind of thing can be found in Exodus 32:1-35 when Moses was taking too long in Aaron’s eyes to come down from communing with God, the people set up a golden calf so as to worship “god”, which did not please Him.
  5. Does the music foster reverence? In all of the instances where people worship God, reverence is present; people falling on their faces before Him. In Malachi 1:8 the people of Israel have no reverence for God and are making offerings of blind and lame animals, the dross of their flock and God has this to say: “When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the LORD of hosts.” It is obviously important to bring offerings to God that foster reverence.
  6. Does the music foster holiness or does it foster sensuality? One of the biggest unspoken issues in a church is often the way in which leaders conduct the leading of worship, particularly when care is not taken to avoid amplification if obvious gender specific attributes. We are supposed to be looking to the leaders to point us to God, not to get our hearts racing. A persons face encompasses the complete expression of that person (Numbers 6:24-26).
  7. Does the music foster orderliness? “All things should be done decently and in order.” (1 Corinthians 14:40)
  8. Does the music foster love? The goal of everything we do as believers is love, and so there should be such a sense of love towards both God and mankind, by the bibles definition of love, not man's (1 Corinthians 13:4-13).
Just to sum up, music is designed by God to enhance the words of the message, and to make the message meaningful. However, the music should not make the listener love the music too much and the message too little. If it does, it creates a conflict with how Jesus described true worship: “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24)