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What’s Music For, Anyway?

Have you taken a look around at the congregation during the music portion of your worship assemblies? Perhaps it is different where you are, but recently I’ve noticed a trend. In several places I’ve been, very few people in the congregation were singing. I’ve wondered why.

One reason why so few people sing these days in comparison to the past is that, at least to my ear, most contemporary music doesn’t lend itself to congregational singing. Many of the tunes (what tunes?) aren’t memorable. Lyrics are often trite, overly repetitious and don’t scan well. The timing is tricky. The range and/or pitch may be outside the scope of untrained voices.

Type of music aside, one of the biggest impediments to congregational participation is that in many cases, the sound level of those “leading” the singing is just too high. I’ve been in many venues where it is almost impossible to hear yourself, let alone those around you. What’s the point of even trying to sing when you can’t tell whether or not you’re on key? Sometimes the sound is so loud it’s one big reverberant mess. If it weren’t for the lyrics projected on screen, you couldn’t tell what was being sung, let alone join in. Not to mention poor mixes which submerge vocals to inaudibility relative to the instruments. I have often felt pity for older saints with hearing aids who vainly struggle to make sense out of the auditory assault and overload.

Then there’s prejudice. Some feel that all things related to the public functions of the church should be relegated to the “professionals.” They feel it reflects poorly on the church if any part of the service lacks “polish.” Anything less will turn people away. I recall reading statements by C.S. Lewis in which he opined that there shouldn’t be any congregational singing at all. In his view, music should only be presented by trained choirs.

It’s Nothing New

Controversies over music have been with us from time immemorial. Almost from the start, music and the role it should play has been one of the most contentious issues to plague the church. It seems that almost every generation struggles with the issue. The use of harp and flute, the chant, polyphony (singing in parts), trained choirs, the use of popular/secular/folk styles for spiritual purposes, a cappella versus instrumental accompaniment, praise songs, traditional versus contemporary, all have been controversial. It would be pathetic were it not for the fact that the controversies over music often mask far more serious issues. The real heart of the controversy may be the question of to what extent the church may accommodate culture, and how reverence should be shown to a holy God.

Spiritual things are spiritually discerned. It can be very difficult to articulate what is felt intuitively through one’s spirit. As a result, discussion tends to focus on musical style or type instead of the spiritual heart of the matter. People on all sides can easily become frustrated. As Dan Bouchelle aptly put it in his address at Restoration Unity Forum XIX, “…the real tension is between those who want a worship that emphasizes God’s holiness and transcendence and those who want a worship that makes God feel near and approachable. And we have a cultural rift on this. Both kinds of worship say something true about God, and both can distort God if that’s all they say. …My chief objection against instrumental music, and really my only objection to instrumental music, is that it tends, and I do say, tends, to discourage congregational participation in singing and give it an entertainment feel.”

Form follows function. It seems to me that many of the controversies about music could be resolved if we would go back and see what the Scriptures say about the purpose for music. What did God intend for music to accomplish? Once we understand what God intended, we can structure the music in our assemblies to meet those goals.

So You Won’t Forget

Do you ever find yourself humming an advertising jingle that you heard years ago? Canny advertising people know that a catchy tune will stick in people’s minds long after they have forgotten a specific company or product. That’s why they spend so much time and money creating a tune that you can’t get out of your head. It’s not surprising that ad companies do this. God intended music to be unforgettable. For example, God told Moses, “Now write down for yourselves this song and teach it to the Israelites and have them sing it… And when many disasters and difficulties come upon them, this song will testify against them, because it will not be forgotten by their descendants…” (Deuteronomy 31:19-21 NIV) Many people find it difficult to memorize Scripture. Scripture songs can be a great help in ‘hiding the word in our hearts.’ (see Psalm 119:9-13) In addition to help in remembering Scripture, song may also aid in recalling what God has done. Since remembrance is part of what the assembly is about, it seems appropriate that this type of song should be part of it.

To Praise His Name

Much more could be said about music and song from the Old Testament. In fact, in speaking of song, the New Testament points back to the Old. In Romans 15:9-11 Paul writes, “…that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy, as it is written: “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing hymns to your name.” … “Praise the Lord, all Gentiles, and sing praises to him, all you peoples.”” (NIV) From this passage it is clear that one of the purposes of song is to praise God. It’s worth asking whether the songs we sing and the way we sing them bring glory to God or to the singer/performer.

Minister To One Another

Ephesians 5:19-20 is another important passage in understanding the purpose of music in the church services. “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father in everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (NIV) Colossians 3:16 is a parallel passage, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in yours heart to God.” (NIV) A more accurate translation of this passage is, “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (updated NASB) These passages present a two-fold purpose for music. a) It aids in ministry to one another. Music is to be used both in teaching and admonishing. b) It helps in expressing thankfulness to God.

These passages shed light on other characteristics of appropriate music. Commentators have attempted to link ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ to specific forms or styles of music. There can be little doubt that the Old Testament Psalms are included in these, but beyond that, the rest is really speculation. The lesson we can draw is that a variety of styles and forms of music are acceptable. But there are other characteristics which must also be taken into account. It is worth noting that the songs are called ‘spiritual songs.’ In other words, they are either inspired by, or sung under the influence of, the Holy Spirit. There are many great songs, some of which even have good lessons or morals. But if they are not spiritual, they have no place in the assembly. In addition, the songs are to be useful for teaching and admonishing. Since the teaching and admonishing is to be done wisely, it follows that the music which is used for these purposes must not be foolish or sung in a foolish fashion.

It is also worth stressing the participatory nature of the singing. The idea conveyed by these verses is not a group performing for an audience. Instead, it is of people singing to each other. We can also see the participatory aspect of singing in the assembly in what Paul writes to the church at Corinth. “…When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:26 NIV) Unfortunately, in the modern church the use of ‘worship teams’ and ‘praise bands’ on stage tends to divide the congregation into performer and audience instead of enhancing unity through a shared experience. Very rarely do we allow anyone in the pew to teach us or admonish us through song. We can also infer from these passages that we underutilize rounds and antiphony (responsive singing) in our worship services.

(The church might also be able to learn something from the theater. Why do orchestra pits exist? They exist so that the orchestra, and the movements of the musicians will not distract from what is happening on stage. The orchestra is intended not to draw attention to itself, but to provide a background accompaniment which enhances the effectiveness of the story line. Unfortunately, the action and movement of those in ‘praise bands’ and ‘worship teams’ often detracts or distracts from, rather than enhances, the ability of the congregation to worship. Let the musicians remain unnoticed while their music helps the congregation to focus on God and the lessons God intends for us to teach each other!)

Not only is the singing to be a mutual, shared experience, it is to be from the heart. Not only from the heart, but from a thankful heart. This is one of the reasons why it can be so difficult to discuss these issues. It is impossible to see into someone else’s heart. What may be acceptable in one setting and manner of singing may be totally inappropriate in another. One person might be able to sing a particular song to the benefit and edification of the congregation while it would be a travesty if a different person were to sing the same song. These things may be sensed in the spirit, but it may be impossible to articulate in rational terms why something is appropriate or inappropriate. On the other hand, we must exercise care not to approve or condemn something merely because of personal likes or dislikes instead of on a true spiritual basis.

I Sing Because I’m Happy

There is a further purpose in singing. It should be an outward expression of happiness. James writes, “…Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.” (James 5:13 NIV) Are we stifling people’s happiness by the way we structure the music in our assemblies? Instead, shouldn’t people be able to express their joy when they come and participate?

In short, I think that many congregations have forgotten one of the purposes for our services. We all would do well to take another look at Scripture and modify how we use music so that we can accomplish what God intended for it.

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