At my church’s Sunday gathering, the preacher and everyone leading the service sits on the stage facing the congregation.
In the past, I’ve been tempted to wonder if they’re really worshipping, or just looking around. Doesn’t someone who is really worshipping close his eyes, put up his hands, and wear an expression of rapture?
At least that’s what I wondered until it was me sitting on stage, looking at the congregation. When the singing begins, I’m beholding God’s people praise God. And it’s unbelievable!
WHAT I BEHOLD
Some eyes are closed and some are open. Some hands are raised and some are not. But the posture of their bodies is not the point.
We’re singing the sixteenth century words of “A Mighty Fortress,” and I notice a woman who was recently assaulted now sing with all her might of a “bulwark never failing.”
We’re singing the eighteenth century words of “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessings” and I’m heartened by the older saint who has persevered in the faith for decades, still singing, “prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; here’s my heart, O, take and seal it; seal it for thy courts above.”
We’re singing the nineteenth century words of “It Is Well,” and I look out and see the middle-aged brother struggling with discouragement over his fight against sinful anger now raising his voice to shout, “My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought: my sin, not in part, but the whole is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more. Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”
We’re singing the twenty-first century words of “In Christ Alone,” and I see the talented young mother who is tempted to regret what she’s given up to have children now exult in her new ambition: “In Christ alone my hope is found, he is my light, my strength, my song.”
As I sit, look out, and behold, my own praises to God are strengthened by the stories and songs of others. My faith is invigorated and enlarged by his work in them.
THE ECHOING WORD
Churches sing because their new hearts can’t help but echo the Word which has given them life. Whether those songs were written in the sixteenth century or today, they should echo Scripture. If there is any place where God’s Word should literally reverberate, it should reverberate in the church’s songs. Remember, Scripture alone gives life.
Therefore, a church’s songs should contain nothing more than the words, paraphrases, or ideas of Scripture.
And churches sing together because it helps us to see that our hearts’ praises, confessions, and resolutions are shared. We’re not alone. Singing in the church, I believe, is about listening as much as it’s about singing. So Paul commands us to “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19, niv). If I’m to speak to others in song, I’m to listen to others as well. In fact, I do sometimes stop singing just to listen and thank God for the voices around me!
“These brothers and sisters share my new heart, my new identity, my Lord and Savior, my comfort and support, my hope and ambition, my glory and joy. I’m with them, they’re with me, and we’re with him.”
WHY WE SING
Believers sing in churches because Christ has commanded us to sing (Col. 3:16, Eph. 5:19). And we’re commanded to sing, I heard minister of music Bob Kauflin observe, because God means for creatures created in his image to do as he does (e.g. Zeph. 3:17; Heb. 2:12). Yet let me unpack what I’ve said so far by articulating three reasons for why I expect God would command his people to speak to one another not just in prose, but in poetry and melody.
We Sing To Own and Affirm the Word
Singing is how the congregation owns and affirms the Word for itself. In the Bible, singing is one God-ordained way for the members of a congregation to respond to God’s revelation. It’s how they raise their hand and say, “Yes, I believe and affirm these truths with my whole person.” For instance, the Psalmist tells God’s people to proclaim God’s Word to others: “Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day” (Ps. 96:2). Singing of his salvation means we’ve owned it as our message.
We Sing to Engage Our Emotions with God’s Word
Singing is how the congregation particularly engages its emotions and affections with God’s Word. When we sing, it’s hard to remain emotionally disengaged. Just as the sense of smell can evoke strong associations and memories, so the sound of music both evokes and provokes the heart’s joys, griefs, longings, hopes, and sorrows. Jonathan Edwards proposed that God gave us music “wholly to excite and express religious affections.” The Psalmist seems to embody this idea when he writes, “My heart overflows with a pleasing theme” (Ps. 45:1).
Singing, I’d say, is the medium by which God’s people grab hold of his Word and align their emotions and affections to God’s.
It’s not surprising therefore that Paul would command churches to sing the psalms, and that the Psalter would be referred to as the church’s hymnbook. John Calvin called the Psalms “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul” since it offers readers words which they can place into their own mouths for properly expressing the whole range of human emotions. In the preface to his commentary on the Psalms, Calvin writes, “for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.” How can Christians express grief in godly fashion? Or sorrow, fear, and doubt? By echoing the Psalms, like Jesus did again and again.
Yet even if churches don’t take their lyrics directly from the Psalter, they should consider the Psalm’s balance of confession, lamentation, exaltation, and thanksgiving, and seek to mimic something similar in their own hymnody. Do we know how to lament in our churches through music? Or confess?
In seminary classrooms, budding preachers are sometimes warned, “A congregation will only be as careful with the Word as you are in the pulpit.” The same is true, I’m convinced, of our singing in church, and our ability to emotionally encounter God throughout the week. A congregation which learns to sing in church with robust confession and contrite praise better knows how to sing to God with their hearts at home, whether they do it to melody or not.
We Sing To Demonstrate and Build Unity
Singing is one way of demonstrating and building corporate unity. Once again, it’s not difficult to imagine how Israel used the Psalms to demonstrate and build the unity of their hearts with one another. Some psalms make this explicit:
[Call] Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!
[Response 1] Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”
[Response 2] Let the house of Aaron say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”
[Response 3] Let those who fear the Lord say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” (Psalm 118:1-4; see also 124:1; 129:1; 136)
The psalmist makes a declaration, and then he asks three groups of people to echo him: the nation, the priests, and then all who fear God (including any foreigners and Gentiles in their midst?). The words “his steadfast love endures forever” is the source of unity, but the poetry and—perhaps—music encourages the people’s hearts to embrace, own, and rejoice in this glorious truth.
The context of Paul’s command to sing is worth noticing as well: “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:15-16). Notice the train of thought: We’re to let peace rule, since we’re called to one body. We’re to be thankful. And we can do all this by singing Christ’s Word together. Again, the Word is the source of unity; but the music gives expression to that unity.
No doubt, this point can be combined with the last one. Singing God’s Word is how a congregation tunes its heart together across the whole range of biblically-driven affections.
What should be clear in all three reasons for why we sing is that singing in church should be about the church singing—congregational singing. Perhaps choirs and soloists can be carefully used to call the church to respond, as in the Psalm above or as an exercise in “speaking to one another in song.” And musical performances outside the gathered church are wonderful. But God has given music to the gathered church so that the people together can own, affirm, rejoice in, and unite around God’s Word. Far better than the sweet harmonies of a few trained singers is the rough and hale sound of pardoned criminals, delighting with one voice in their Savior.
The most beautiful instrument in any Christian service is the sound of the congregation singing.
Jonathan Leeman is an elder at the Capitol Hill Baptist Church and is the editorial director for 9Marks. He is the author of several books, including Reverberation: How God’s Word Gives Light, Freedom, and Action to His People. You can follow him on Twitter.
Pastors’ Forum: What do you do and not do to accommodate ethnic diversity in your worship service planning?
Answers from Dave Furman, Kevin Hsu, Paul Martin, John Onwuchekwa, and Juan Sanchez
I will never lose the gospel for the sake of unity in diversity, but I will preach the unadjusted gospel consistently.
I will never water down theology to a lowest common denominator in order to accommodate more people and cultures, but I will consistently preach rich doctrine as seen in Scripture.
I will never focus on things in our worship gathering in order to please any specific culture, but I will instead focus on things that all Christians do: We practice the sacraments (baptism and Lord's Supper), pray, sing, read, and listen to the word of God read and preached.
I will never do anything to unnecessarily alienate or elevate any one culture, but I will strive to have people from different ethnic backgrounds assume roles in our worship service, participate in ministry, and serve the church together as one body.
I will never plan and create vision for our worship services alone, but I will seek the input from a diverse group of leaders from within our church.
Dave Furman is the senior pastor of Redeemer Church of Dubai, which has members from over 50 countries.
What We Do:
- Preach the Word of God that crosses all cultures and ethnic groups.
- Intentionally think through how to apply God's Word to members of various ethnic groups.
- Intentionally include members in good standing from different ethnic groups in the service.
- Pray for God's Word to deeply penetrate every ethnic group in our diverse Bay Area, and to the nations.
- Ask people to bring their ethnic dishes to our church potlucks.
What We Don’t Do:
- Under-value ethnic diversity by thinking the gospel eliminates all differences. In re-making us into one new race in Jesus Christ, the Gospel brings unity amidst diversity, not uniformity.
- Over-value ethnic diversity by intentionally dividing people into different classes, small groups, or ministries based on ethnicity
Kevin Hsu is the pastor of Urban Grace Church in Oakland, California.
I pastor in what the United Nations considers to be the most culturally diverse city in the world. Nearly 52 percent of the millions who live in Toronto were born outside of Canada. Thankfully, that diversity is represented in our church.
Here are our top five ways we try to promote diversity in our services:
5. Ask qualified members of different backgrounds to read, pray, and serve in our services.
4. Sing songs we can sing. Avoid trying to be what we are not as a congregation.
3. Celebrate and enjoy diversity, especially in the preaching. Apply and illustrate cross-culturally.
2. Stay Word-focused. The Bible crosses all cultural boundaries, is immediately relevant to everyone, and its faithful application guards against cultural snobbery.
1. Be a normal church. Don’t specialize on cultural diversity or uniformity. The number one thing to avoid is elevating any culture over authentic gospel-culture.
Paul Martin is pastor for preaching and vision at Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, Canada.
What We Do:
We look carefully at songs, language, or references that could estrange a particular demographic. When we find these things, we don’t necessarily take them out, we just want to be mindful of them so that we can explain them and invite other people to participate. That may look like us changing certain lyrics in songs, musical arrangements, and so on.
Our musical selection is the place where this is the most visible. We try to sing a healthy mix of hymns, contemporary, and gospel, although we never have as much of balance as we’d like.
We encourage people to engage with others who don’t look like them. The battle for ethnic diversity is won and lost in the hallways before and after church.
We try to make what goes on up front reflect the makeup of the congregation. Whether you call them a service leader or emcee or host, we try to make sure this group is diverse.
In our preaching, conversations, and worship leading, we don’t assume that everyone in the room has the same family structure. We’re mindful of single moms and kids that don’t know their mothers or fathers or have been raised by grandparents.
What We Don’t Do:
We don’t track measure diversity with any official metrics—at least not anymore. We don’t make it the North Star and become overly consumed with it.
At the end of the day, we can do all of the right things and not be a very diverse church. If we’re faithful and sensitive with what we do and say, then we trust that the results are up to God and him alone.
John Onwuchekwa is the teaching pastor of Blueprint Church in Atlanta, Georgia.
At High Pointe Baptist Church we have learned that the miracle of the gospel is not mere ethnic diversity but harmony among the diversity. So, perhaps it is better to point out what we don’t do first, followed in each case by what we do:
We don’t focus on a particular ethnicity/demographic in our music. Instead, we seek to select music that is gospel-centered and congregationally singable.
We don’t plan ethnic diversity on the platform each service. Instead, we encourage everyone to serve in various capacities and diversity is regularly witnessed.
We don’t emphasize Americanism in our services and avoid “patriotic” emphases. Instead, we speak about being world Christians who are strangers and aliens on this earth. We also display flags of different countries in our auditorium and outside our building.
We don’t promote men as elders on the basis of ethnicity. Instead, we train all men; ask the Lord to raise up qualified men to serve as elders; and we have gratefully seen God raise up a diverse elder board.
Juan Sanchez is the senior pastor of High Pointe Baptist Church in Austin, Texas.
Spend some time with members of a Khosa church in South Africa, and you will quickly discover how wonderfully they sing. No instruments. No microphones. One individual leading, the rest following. Many hands clapping. And how they join their voices in full-throated praise!
This article is not written for them. It’s written for a traditional Western church. Westerners are accustomed to professional-quality and performance-oriented music. And for better or worse, this affects what Christians expect musically when we walk into the church gathering. Unless a church deliberately pushes in an alternative direction, we expect the music to demonstrate the same quality of performance as what we hear on the car radio or through our Mp3 ear buds. Anything less can sound clunky, tacky, even embarrassing.
What’s more, there are few places in contemporary Western culture where people learn to sing together. Maybe at a Christmas event? Or in the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley Field?
Church leaders underestimate how deliberately they must push against these cultural trends to get their church singing; to teach them that the untrained but united voices of the congregation make a far better sound than the Tonight Show Band; to teach them that singing loudly in the presence of other people is not awkward; to teach them that all our emotions don’t have to be individually spontaneous to be worthy, but that there is place to guide and conform our individual emotions to the group’s activity.
If church leaders want congregations that will really “speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19), they will have to work at it. They will have to try things that might seem strange or unnatural for people who are accustomed to sitting quietly and watching the performance on stage. Here are a few tips, many of which, no doubt, fall into the realm of prudence.
1. Teach the congregation the importance of worshipping God in song. Just as Christians must be taught the importance of prayer and other spiritual disciplines, so they must learn from Scripture how God intends for them to sing. When the Word of God dwells in us richly, singing is the natural result (see Col. 3:16). If God sings over us in happy song (Zeph. 3:17), we who reflect our Creator should sing in return.
2. Encourage thoughtful, purposeful singing through private and public prayer. How easy it is to honor God with our lips while our hearts are far from him (Is. 29:13; Matt. 15:8)! So pray privately and publicly against thoughtless and hypocritical singing.
3. Make sure the congregation knows why they are singing the chosen song. If it’s a prayer, briefly remind them. If it’s a song of commitment, point that out. If it reflects the preached message from God’s Word, make that clear. Songs that are chosen just because they are favorite song of the song-chooser are often not well-sung. Although congregations are generally compliant enough to sing whatever song is suggested, they will sing it more enthusiastically if they know why they are singing that particular song. Help them to care about singing “in spirit and in truth.”
4. Choose “congregational” rather than “performance” songs. Here is a general (not absolute) principle: the more a song depends on the musical accompaniment and cannot be sung by a couple of children in the car on the way home, the more performance-oriented and less congregational it probably is. Congregational songs tend to have singable and memorable melodies. Just because a Christian artist has created something wonderful does not mean it is appropriate for the congregation. The melody may not be very melodic. It may be too high, too low, or wide of range. It may be too rhythmic, perhaps syncopated in a way that’s difficult for untrained singers. It may be too complex through bridges, tags, or multiple keys. Such music might sound wonderful with the recorded accompaniment. Maybe the praise band can perform it just fine. But the more a congregation needs the musicians up front to get through a song, the more you can expect them to mouth the words while watching the band do its thing.
5. Please, oh please, turn up the lights. Keeping stage lights bright while dimming lights among the people turns the people into an “audience” and everyone on stage into performers. It makes the whole event mimic the movie theater or the concert hall. Keeping the entire room lit up, however, suggests that everyone is called to participate in the “performance” before an “audience” of one—God.
6. Please, oh please, turn down the musical accompaniment. You don’t want your electric guitars or your organ, your drums or your microphoned choir, to drown out the sound of the congregation singing. We might even say the loudest sound in a room should be the congregation. Lead singers might sing loudly on the first verse of a song, but then pull back a touch on subsequent verses. Good accompaniment accompanies. Facilitates. Encourages. It does not attract or overwhelm. If a small group or choir is leading, they should be an aural microcosm of the congregation. Let their volume be natural and without too much amplification. If they have prepared the hymn in rehearsal they will “lead” by their sound.
7. Consider the dangers of performance rehearsals, “excellent” music, and heavy instrumentation.There is a place for musical rehearsal. But why are you rehearsing? To what end? Musical rehearsals often involve the insertion of creative elements that make for good performances, but not for congregational singing. Musicians and singers should use any rehearsal time to ask themselves how to best facilitate congregational singing, not be impressive. The common focus on “excellence” and “quality” can, ironically, distract musicians from seeking to serve the congregation because "excellence" is unthinkingly defined in terms of performance. What would it instead mean to aim to facilitate excellently, not to perform excellently. By the same token, elaborate instrumentation can sometimes squelch congregational singing. Mere and acoustic instrumentation tends to help singing.
8. Look for a balance between new songs and old songs. On the one hand, people sing well when singing an old and beloved song. On the other hand, old songs can wear out, which can lead to thoughtless singing. On the one hand, songs that are new to a congregation (whether recently composed or not) are harder to sing. On the other hand, a congregation’s musical repertoire should grow as the congregation grows in maturity and depth. Congregations, like people, go through different seasons, and new songs help it to grow through those seasons. All these hands mean that helping people to sing well involves both new and old songs, and figuring out the balance for your church. Never be closed to learning new songs, whether they are newly composed or old songs that are new to you. And teach those new songs more than once.
9. Use songs that represent a broad range of human experience and emotion. If all a church’s music is exultant and gladsome, much of your church’s singing will be inauthentic and affected. How true to life are they lyrics of “I Hear the Words of Love”: “My love is ofttimes low, / My joy still ebbs and flows, / But peace with Him remains the same, / No change my Savior knows.” Or that frank admission from “Come Thou Fount”: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, / Prone to leave the God I love…” A church’s hymnody, like the Psalter, should have words for happy Christians, sad Christians, tempted Christians, and all the in-between Christians. Along these lines, a congregation is served by having a repertoire of 300 songs rather than 30. Life is complex and diverse. So should our worship be.
10. Vary the way a song is sung. Just as a preacher might speak the same words with a different tone between one Sunday and the next, adjusting for the mood of the day or the sermonic context in which the words are spoken, so a song might be led differently at different times. The dynamics of the accompaniment might vary. Maybe the volume rises; maybe it falls. Maybe that third stanza is sung quietly, maybe vigorously. Maybe a key change, maybe not. Maybe a cappella, maybe not. Certainly the text of a song should shape the mood of the accompaniment, but so can the mood of the church’s life, or the place it occurs in the church service.
11. Where possible, arrange chairs or pews with some facing each other and not just the stage. Singing is a “team” effort, and often the only part of the worship that is a visible expression of togetherness. This is one way to remember the fact that Paul says to “speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19). There is nothing wrong with closing one’s eyes when singing, to be sure, but the picture painted by Paul sounds like people are looking at one another! Church is not the place for a turbo-charged quiet time.
12. Consider the room’s acoustics. Bad acoustics hurt congregational singing probably more than you realize. Are the floors entirely carpeted? Limit carpet to the aisles. Are there acoustic tiles on the ceiling? Remove them and replace with solid plaster. Heavy curtains? Take them down. Fully padded pews? Any chance of removing all padding except the seat? If your worship space is unusual in any way and needs help, maybe hire a professional acoustician to consult for what you can do to improve the reverberation time and limit unpleasant echoes.
Warning: acousticians will always assume you want “to improve the acoustics” in terms of what is projected from the platform. Many ask for an auditorium with “dead” acoustics in the audience so that coughing and extraneous noise is not heard during a concert. But you must inform them that you want improved congregational singing. Worship is not a concert, and the congregation is not an audience. Let them be heard through live acoustics. Why do people like to sing in the shower? Because the acoustics amplify our sound.
13. Perhaps place musicians and singers to the side for a season. Every room and congregational culture is different. Placing musicians and singers to the side might in some circumstances hinder congregational singing because the congregation needs stronger leadership. But if your congregation has fallen into a performance culture and orientation, where feasible, considering placing song leaders to the side. There was a good reasons some older churches placed their choirs in the balcony--so that they would be heard and not seen. When the song leader's stage presence yields a performance culture, God is less seen and heard.
14. Model enthusiastic singing. Whether the elders, staff, and deacons are sitting on a platform or in the congregation, they should model enthusiastic and appropriately-loud singing. Off-key singing is better than no singing. The pastor who is still looking over sermon notes during the singing is saying by example, “Singing in our worship is not that important!” In a culture that sometimes equates masculinity with the stoicism of a Clint Eastwood-like character, modeling enthusiastic singing is especially important for male leadership.
15. Print the music, pick songs with good parts, and look for other ways to promote musical literacy. Musical literacy is not what it used to be, thanks to declining music education in schools. But even if ten percent of the church sings the parts, everyone’s singing will be invigorated. People talk about the advantages of “looking up,” which reading an overhead screen requires. But why then is it that all the churches looking at screens don’t seem to sing as well as an older generation of churches staring down at their hymnals? Perhaps it’s time for churches to think about hymnals again, or at least to start printing music in their bulletins. Pick music with good parts, and make sure any choir or song leaders sing the parts.
16. Hold a singing class. Following the example of the composer of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” Lowell Mason, who created “Singing Schools” in the church, Justin Leighty, a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, offers his own church a monthly hymn singing class. They meet the first Sunday of every month for 45 minutes before the evening service. Attendees are grouped by their parts like a choir, and they practice music basics: “This is a quarter note; this is a whole note. Here’s where the tenor line is: when it goes down, you go down, when it goes up, you go up...etc.”
17. Occasionally sing a cappella (unaccompanied). Maybe the third verse; maybe the fourth. Or maybe even a whole song, with a piano or guitar starting the piece and then bridging transitions. And don’t waste you’re a cappella singing on melody-only songs; sing it when there are parts that are good and well known. A cappella singing helps the congregation to hear themselves and rely solely on their combined voices to sing at a volume that says they believe what they are singing! Slow the tempo down a bit and free the congregation to engage every part of their body, soul, and spirit in the song.
18. Regularly remind the congregation that they are the primary instrument in corporate worship. If they don’t sing with gusto, musical worship won’t happen. That doesn’t mean acting like a cheerleader at a pep-rally: “Okay, let’s really sing…I want to hear you…I know you can sing louder!” Such leadership detracts from the seriousness of the music, and doesn’t treat their singing as a genuine spiritual expression of love, thanksgiving, and praise. Ultimately, congregational singing should be as natural as words of awe before an unusual sunset, or words of mourning with a hurting friend. Still, congregations must be taught that it is their responsibility to sing, and to teach one another through song. They must be taught to gather expecting to sing.
David Leeman, Mark Dever, and Matt Merker contributed to this article.
Jonathan Leeman, the son of a music minister, was lavishly supplied with opportunities to participate in church music from an early age. Presently, he serves as an elder at the Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC and the editorial director of 9Marks. You can follow him on Twitter.
There are two paths for people to take in the midst of trials. They can take the path of self-reliance or the path of trusting in God.
The path of self-reliance sometimes sounds like angry recriminations against God, sometimes an upbeat can-do attitude. But in both cases God is rejected. Maybe he didn't cause the trial, but he surely could have prevented it. So he is charged, convicted, and imprisoned.
The path of trusting in God, admittedly, is difficult. It takes a childlike humility, like staring down at a piece of loathsome brocolli but trusting your mother when she says it's good for you and eating it. The trial doesn't make sense. It hurts. You don't think you deserve it. But you trust that, yes, God has assigned it, and so you accept it. You trust that he has something better in store--something somewhere in some way, though it's hardly perceptible right now.
I remember sitting with Margaret on more than one occassion as she wept over all that life had done to her. I understood her weeping. She had been hurt much, lost much. Yet somehow, down there in the depths of her despair, her heart raged. It raged against the Lord and his Word. It raged against the church. She was lonely, desperate, tragically sad, and as proud as a bull. And I remember thinking that her pride was doubly tragic, like the sick man who refuses the medicine because of his spite toward the hand that gives it.
Then I remember sitting with Cole. He too had lost something of great value. He thought his life was moving one way. Then it suddenly moved in another. There was much weeping. Much hurt. Countless conversations. Lots of second-guessing and doubting. But somehow, down there in the depths of his despair, Cole kept reading his Bible. He told the Lord that he hurt, that he didn't understand. But then he waited. He went to older Chrisitians for counsel. And he listened to them. He did what they said to do. And little by little, Cole began to heal. Cole grew. Cole became more of a man, not less. His heart expanded, his posture strengthened.
I wonder how many people have chosen the path of angry athiesm because their pride could not endure some set of trials, like the fool who says in his heart there is no God. He's a fool because he does not like what God assigns, and decides that he is wiser than God.
But apart from grace, none of us would endure even lesser trials. To bow the knee before God in the midst of tragedy, to tell him that you accept whatever he assigns, to absorb the loss while trusting that he is good and means the loss for your good, is this not the path of even greater vulnerability?! You are hurt, and now you are being asked to bow lower still? To surrender your instinct for self-protection? This requires nothing short of the humility of Jesus himself, the one who said, "Not my will, but yours be done." Only the Spirit can give this.
If you are in the midst of a trial, there are only two paths that your heart can take. One seems reasonable and natural, but it leads to death. The other seems unreasonable and unnatural, because it requires you to bow lower still. It requires you stop protecting yourself and become even more vulnerable. But it alone leads to life. Which then will you take?
We asked Harold Best and Ken Myers the same three questions:
- Can God employ any musical form for redemptive purposes?
- Even if God can employ any musical form redemptively, are some musical forms spiritually or morally “better” than others?
- Are some musical forms “better” for the sake of the gathered church?
Click here for Best’s answers. Myers answers the questions not specifically but broadly:
In a letter written in 1955, Flannery O’Connor remarked, “If you live today you breathe in nihilism….It’s the gas you breathe.” She went on to observe that she would have been perfectly content in this condition “if I hadn’t had the Church to fight it with or to tell me the necessity of fighting it.”
Almost sixty years later, the cultural atmosphere in which we live suffers from a much more intense state of toxicity. But many church leaders have not grown in the wisdom necessary for recognizing the forms our nihilism takes. Their churches are neither reliable allies in the fight against nihilism nor trustworthy tutors concerning the need for combat. One sign of their failure is the widespread assumption—evident in worship practices and the defense thereof—that musical forms are neutral and meaningless. Insisting that music is inherently meaningless, that all meaning in music is arbitrarily assigned, that only the words in songs provide meaning, and that true words can be suitably attached to any musical expression, is very close to saying that the universe itself is meaningless. Defenders of such claims are unwitting allies of nihilism, not its adversaries.
Postmodern nihilism is not conveyed so much by propositional claims that address the reason as by cultural forms that shape the imagination. Theologically conservative Christians adept at defending propositional truths often neglect the task of learning to discern non-propositional meaning. Paul’s command that we avoid cultural conformity and seek transformation by the renewing of our minds is not limited to honing the logical processes of deduction. It involves a more ancient understanding of the working of the mind, which included training the imagination and intuition as organs of meaning, linked to the powers of perception through the senses.
In that pre-Enlightenment understanding of the mind, music—ordered form aurally perceived—was understood to be meaningful because Creation was ordered by the Logos. In singing or hearing an ascending melody, for example, one was experiencing something of the nature of ascent. Ascending and descending are realities known in space and time that somatically represent realities beyond space and time. Heights and depths physically experienced—climbing mountains or falling into pits—are meaningful before one rationally analyzes the meaning. All of the vertical metaphors in Scripture—for example, setting our minds on things that are above (Col. 3:2), esteeming those over us in the Lord highly (1 Thess. 5:12), the ascent of incense, hands, and prayers (Ps. 141:2), and so on—rely on the experienced knowledge of ascending and descending. Such knowledge is expressed and experienced in artistic forms seen and heard as well as in more active, tactile activities.
Much musical meaning—like much verbal meaning—is metaphoric. In Psalm 19, the desirability of God’s precepts is compared to gold and their sweetness to honey. We know what that means because we have seen and touched gold and tasted honey. The meaning of those sensory encounters—a meaning we knew before we reasoned about it—provides the basis for the meaning of the propositional claims of the psalmist. The meaning of gold or honey is ineffable, but it is not imaginary or capricious. God created gold and bees to grant us access to a form of knowledge that goes beyond words, but on which words depend.
God similarly created us and the world we live in so that the sound caused by vibrations is perceived as having metaphoric (usually spatial or tactile) qualities. We speak of people with a smooth or a raspy voice, or we refer to the sound of some instruments as mellow and others as harsh. Some harmonies are perceived as close or tight, some melodic lines as open or airy. We have also been created with a musical sense, a capacity for expression and experience of metamorphic meaning through melody, harmony, rhythm, sound texture, and musical form.
The forms of musical expression in any given culture often reflect the reigning assumptions in that culture about reality generally and the human condition specifically. Musical genres of the sixteenth century, for example, are more adept at conveying complex and mysterious realities. Jacob Handl’s Nativity anthem, “Mirabile mysterium,” proclaims: “A wondrous mystery is declared today, an innovation is made upon nature; God is made man; that which he was, he remains, and that which he was not, he takes on, suffering neither commixture nor division.” The musical vocabulary available to Handl provided tools to express these intricate ideas because the cultural milieu of that time was sympathetic to and in many ways still guided by those mysteries. It’s hard to imagine this text or the realities it represents being set to a polka or a march.
Since aesthetic forms—in “high” and popular culture—are often expressions of the Zeitgeist, Christians living in confused or rebellious cultures should never assume that they can obtain reliable materials for worship or discipleship off the shelf. As Calvin Stapert has observed, “Christians today live in a society whose musical thought…[has] largely bought into the ideas and practices that came out of the Enlightenment and Romanticism.” Today, the mistakes of the Enlightenment and Romanticism—mistakes rooted in a defiant rejection of a Christian understanding of reality — have decomposed into the nihilism Flannery O’Connor sniffed out three generations ago. And our musical culture reflects this, not uniformly, to be sure, but more emphatically than many Christians recognize.
Can God use musical forms that evolved to express autonomy and defiance for “redemptive purposes”? Of course, but that is to say something about God, not about our responsibility to behave wisely. I believe God could use someone’s steady diet of fatty and sugary foods to improve cardiac health, or that he could use the cultivation of aggression and vengeance to promote a spirit of gentle humility. But should we give our children stones when they ask for bread, insisting that God perform a work of transubstantiation at every meal?
Ken Myers is the host and producer of Mars Hill Audio, a bimonthly audio magazine that examines issues in contemporary culture from a framework shaped by Christian conviction. He lives in central Virginia with his wife and two children, and is a member of All Saints Anglican Church in Ivy, Virginia, where he serves as music director.
We asked Harold Best and Ken Myers the same three questions:
- Can God employ any musical form for redemptive purposes?
- Even if God can employ any musical form redemptively, are some musical forms spiritually or morally “better” than others?
- Are some musical forms “better” for the sake of the gathered church?
We'll publish Myers' answer tomorrow. Best’s answer is below:
My answers to these questions derive from principle, not the music I love, like, tolerate, or loathe.
CAN GOD EMPLOY ANY MUSICAL FORM?
Can God employ any musical form for redemptive purposes? Yes he can, but note the following:
First, there are possible implications in the question that need clarification.
(1) The question seems to imply that some forms might be more useful to God than others based on assumed aesthetic or moral qualities. But this cannot be allowed, for two reasons. First, God doesn’t judge music; he judges people for the reasons they make and use it. Second, christianized choices about acceptable music have never been stable: one generation’s trash becomes another’s treasure. Examples of this are too many to count. Meanwhile, in Luther’s words, the gospel runs its course. But this does not mean that there should be no debate. Rather, the nature of the debate needs changing from philosophized theology to biblical theology.
(2) The question seems to imply that God might have to work harder with music x than music y because x is unfamiliar, overly complex, or overly simplistic, while y meets all “relevance” criteria. But this is flawed: God needs no outside leverage in doing his work. If he did, he surrenders his omnipotence.
Second, viewing the above from another angle, forms or genres are no more unredeemed or redeemed than a mountain sunset or a computer or a jazz tune. Who does God redeem? It’s humanity, uniquely imago Dei, the only save-able or lose-able entity in the creation. Because of the resurrected Christ, the redeemed are the only ones who by faith and in hope are already participants in the new creation.
The template is clear: God saves people, and uses created things in whatever way he pleases. It is in this sense that the rest of creation, dumb to redemption itself—camels and cathedrals can’t be saved—awaits re-creation. Artifacts—sunsets, computers, jazz tunes—remain themselves and are no-things outside of themselves. In all of their self-enclosed meaningfulness, they simply function as themselves, contingently pointing away from themselves to the One, the Truth, who alone redeems.
There are important principles at work here. The Creator is not the creation. The alternative is pantheism. Further, the creation could not make itself, but had to be made. And by being made, it is both less than, and under submission to, the sovereignty of the Maker. Let’s take this one step further. According to Scripture, God granted humankind extraordinary sovereignty over what He made, and by extension, over what it makes. Music does not make itself. We bring it into being, and it is neither one with us (we are not the music) nor empowered over us. If we allow this order to be reversed, the result is inevitable: We become shaped by what we have shaped and by allowing this, have turned to idolatry. But if music is in submission to us and not the reverse, we offer it freely as an act of worship—no more and no less—and are thus delivered from depending on it as a cause of worship. Even when we talk about music being an aid to, or tool for, worship, we are flirting with sovereignty-reversal, especially in this culture of narcissism and power mongering. Furthermore, if I look to music as an aid, and end up in a worship service where the music is stylistically upsetting or even offensive, does it then become an aid to non-worship? Not as long as I understand that the Holy Spirit is the sovereign Aid to worship, who can neutralize any temporary circumstance. Likewise, if I find myself in a musical setting that is rhapsodically wonderful, I must remember that the beauty of the music cannot approach the glory and wonder of Almighty God.
Third, the term “musical form” is benignly abstract. Take the following constructs:
- the nation’s Capitol Building;
They are all in the same ABA (ternary) form but each is essentially different and differently shaped.
To live in a world of “forms” is to live in a world of essentialized dis-reality. By contrast, to live in a universe of nearly infinite shapes, each one real in itself, is quintessentially biblical. A pine tree is not a manifestation of an idealized pine tree, for there is no such thing “out there.”
God’s way is this way: each pine tree is an individualized completeness, good-in-itself. And while all pine trees are God’s personal handiwork, one pine tree can be more beautiful or crooked or symmetrical than another one. Meanwhile the Creator declares each one “good.” Further, a pine tree cannot be ultimately said to be more beautiful than a red-winged blackbird, even though one blackbird can be more beautiful than another.
At the musical level, the beauty of a jazz improvisation cannot be said to better a Renaissance motet, even though one jazz improvisation (or motet) can be deemed better than another. And if we want to insert the concept of taste into these examples, taste is the arbitrary exercise of deciding-among. Meanwhile, intrinsic worth is a given while quality varies.
ARE SOME MUSICAL FORMS “BETTER” THAN OTHERS?
Even if God can employ any musical form redemptively, are some musical forms spiritually or morally “better” than others?
The quick answer is “no”, but the question deserves further consideration. I have no idea what “better” means except in a relative sense: x can be better than y even though x is never perfect. To complicate things, we often cross wires by using “better” in a moral sense, thus confusing taste and purity.
The Scherzo in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is in simple ternary form, as are a thousand third-movement works in as many classical compositions. The Beethoven is better by far, but is it better than the second movement of Brahms’ German Requiem, also in ternary form? Who’s to say? I can’t.
However, I can say this: the most mediocre ternary form imaginable among those thousand compositions has intrinsic goodness and can be as spiritual as any choosing heart might say. Quality is a matter of taste, which, even among the most practiced connoisseurs, is straightforwardly arguable. And I disagree with those who bring taste—as important as it is in its comparative domain—into matters of spirituality. For who among them is expert enough to test the subtle nuances of sheer goodness without dipping into extremist comparatives: “good taste/bad taste”; “art/non-art”; “morally good/morally bad”?
God nowhere defines spiritual music, but he is unequivocal about what a spiritual person inwardly is, irrespective of the “betterness” of a cultural artifact. St. Paul, in talking about “spiritual songs,” certainly meant text types before musical types. Otherwise, the terms “psalms” and “hymns” would imply “other-than-spiritual.”
Furthermore, if we were to speak of something being of better moral quality, we’re fudging, because there are no gradations in true morality. “Fudging” on tax returns is no less immoral than lust for a new Camaro or bed-mate. Sin is sin, both for believers and non-believers. But spirituality is a condition within which increasing christlikeness deepens and cleanses us but in no way lessens the exceeding sinfulness of sin or guarantees sinless perfection.
In short, any construct that even suggests an equation between Truth (absolute) and beauty (variable) walks into a theological morass.
ARE SOME FORMS “BETTER” FOR CHURCH?
Finally, are some musical forms “better” for the sake of the gathered church?
“Better” is the wrong word. “Appropriate” is better. “Better,” as already explained, is relative, whereas “appropriate” in the biblical sense comes as the result of searching among things that are relative to each other.
Deciding among relativities is called discernment. The decision becomes absolute because it derives out of a solemn commitment made to the Lord. But this does not mean that the artifacts are absolutized. Nor does it mean that, as contexts change the artifacts can’t change as God leads. For instance, I would be playing fast and loose with a commandment if I were to ask God for discernment as to whether I drink myself to drunkenness. But I can pray for discernment as to why and how much I drink and with whom I choose to drink, especially if he or she is weaker, in which case, by discernment I abstain from what I know to be good. By the same token, the leadership in any local assembly is free to assume that all available musical options are on the table until, by prayerful discernment, a local template is cut that accords with what is best for that particular community, not in terms of “how to grow a church” or “how to get people to worship” but what informed wisdom demands.
If there are problems with music and the church in today’s culture, it’s not about the latest, newest, strangest, most secularized music, or picking on this or that style in the name of sanctified otherness. It’s about the egregious errors that are regularly anointed by pastors and so-called worship leaders and ecclesiastical analysts.
These errors revolve around giving music—any music in any worship context—far more compartmentalized attention than even the best of it deserves. This is where we, not culture, have become paganized, in mirroring a post-Romanticist, culture-wide addiction to music. We’re talking idolatry, but not just the kind where music is reputed to have the power to change lives—this alone is refutable—but where music, any music, any style, anywhere, becomes indispensable to doing anything and everything, including so-called Christian worship. Far too often, music means worship and worship means music. This is a blatant hook-up between things of the spirit and mere handiwork. And this hook-up takes us down the road to idolatrous pantheism sprinkled with holy water.
In short, if we were to stop our speculations about ideal forms, moral content, and good taste (as if we from our Western, post-Enlightenment duck blind had the only bead on them); if we were to get back to the simple wonder of the sheer fact of music, offered temperately, humbly, imaginatively, servingly, discerningly and in complete surrender to the sovereign Word of God, the conversation would be radically different.
Harold M. Best is Dean Emeritus of Wheaton College Conservatory of Music and past president of the National Association of Schools of Music. He has authored a number of books, including Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts, reviewed by 9Marks here.
Whatever happened to headphones? Or even earbuds, their scrawny successors?
Since the advent of the iPhone, it seems to me that more and more people project their music into the air around them instead of into their ears. I see this—hear it, rather—everywhere: the gym, the airport, the reservoir I walk around near my home. I’m constantly bursting into other people’s personal Beyoncé or Bieber bubbles.
I could talk about how technologies like tiny speakers only reveal the self-absorption already present in the heart, but I won’t. Instead, there’s a parable here I want to probe, a parable that portrays the difference between how we tend to listen to music individually and how we should approach music in church.
These projected musical spheres picture the fact that for many people today, music serves as a kind of stylized soundtrack to our lives.
Why do you listen to the music you listen to? The reasons are likely layered and sometimes subconscious. On some level, most people’s aesthetic judgments are intuitive: you like what you like. But musical preferences are also influenced by where you grew up, what your parents listened to, what your parents forbid you to listen to, and—especially—what your friends listen to. And preferences can shift over time in large and small ways.
What you listen to also depends on the mood you’re in and the mood you want to set. If you’re depressed, melancholy music can feel cathartic. If you’re exercising, you want to get your blood pumping. If you’re working or studying, you probably want music that will tune out distractions without turning into a distraction.
And what you listen to depends on present company. Hence the eternal struggle, in some families, for control of the car radio.
What’s the big picture here? In the late modern West, and increasingly throughout the world, music functions for many like a movie score writ small. It signals the cultural niche of the characters, sets the mood, and enhances the action.
That music works like this is more or less a fact of life today, but it’s not a fact of nature. Customized music consumption is possible only because of the technology and commercial structures that enable it. To paint in broad strokes, prior to the advent of mass media most people’s experience of music was just like all their neighbors’: they heard and sang the songs of their people. People used to hum folk songs, the common property of generations, while they plowed the fields and baked the bread. By contrast, the cornucopia of choice that characterizes today’s music consumption is a feature of advanced capitalism.
That doesn’t make it wrong. But it does mean we should look out for instincts programmed by the habit of customized consumption that might need to be deprogrammed when we step into church on Sunday morning.
Why? Because music in church is doing something very different from what it’s doing on our iPhones.
In Colossians 3:16 Paul writes, “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.” The parallel passage in Ephesians 5:18–19 exhorts us not to get drunk, but instead to “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.”
In these passages Paul addresses the whole congregation. He commands the whole church to sing, just as God frequently commands his people to sing to him throughout the Old Testament (e.g., Psalm 9:11, 30:4, 33:3, 47:6).
It’s not that the band plays music up front while everyone listens or maybe sings along, like at a concert. Instead, the church is the band. What accompaniment there is simply serves and supports the church’s singing.
In church, music isn’t something we consume but something we create.
And what exactly is this music for? It is a means by which we make melody to the Lord and give thanks to him. It is also a means by which we address, admonish, and instruct one another. Our singing in church is directed to God and each other. It aims at God’s glory and the good of the body. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14:26, “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson…Let all things be done for building up.”
That this singing is corporate rather than individual is not accidental but essential. Paul prays for the church in Rome, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:5–6). Paul wants the church in Rome to live as one so they can glorify God as one. He wants their unified songs of praise to express their unified life as a church. We glorify God by singing together because in Christ God has brought us together.
In the church, music is a means by which we all, as one body, glorify the Lord and edify each other by singing the excellencies of him who has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Far from being a stylized personal soundtrack, music in church is more like a score for an orchestra: the church is the orchestra, and every single member is an instrument. Note that in moving from everyday music to music in church we’ve switched from passive to active. Again, you don’t consume music in church; you create it.
We’ve also switched from individual to corporate. The point of music in church is not that you would have a private spiritual experience of the presence of God as you sing or as others perform. Instead, the point is that your voice would combine with dozens or hundreds of others into one voice which praises God and proclaims his grace to his people.
When an orchestra shows up to perform, everyone knows it’s a team effort. Dozens of musicians play from one score so that the orchestra plays as one. Out of the dozens of musicians comes one unified sound. It’s unthinkable that the members of the orchestra would insist on only playing the parts that resonated with their personal preferences. For many to sound as one, the many must lay down any agendas that have potential to fragment their unity.
In moving from everyday music to Sunday morning, we’ve also switched from personal to prescribed purposes. On your own time, as long as you’re loving God and your neighbor, you can do whatever you want with music. But as we’ve seen, music in church has purposes that are precisely prescribed by God.
All music in church must enable the church to build each other up and praise God. That’s a matter of the whole church’s obedience or disobedience to the word of God. What matters most in church music is that it causes the word of Christ to dwell in the church richly. Substance, therefore, is more important than style. And the most important questions about style are not whether it meshes with someone’s preferences, but whether a song’s style serves the divinely mandated purposes of whole-church praise and admonition.
What then should you do about your musical preferences in church? To put it bluntly, leave them at the door.
You can turn your iPod back on as soon as you hop into the car and drive home. In church, though, lay down your preferences and gladly sing what the body sings. The eye, ear, hand, and foot may all have their preferences, but the body sings as one.
You should expect to check your preferences at the door, first, because of the differences between how we typically consume music as individuals and how we are to create music in the church. I’m not suggesting that most Christians think they can treat their church’s order of service like an iTunes playlist. But I do think our musical consumer culture is so pervasive that it takes hard work to give up preferences rather than insisting on them. We’re so used to crafting our own soundtracks that it takes effort to cultivate a musical culture where the many matters more than the one.
And giving up our preferences for the good of the body is exactly what the gospel calls us to do. The gospel calls us to give up so others can gain, to count others more significant than ourselves, just as Christ did for us (Phil. 2:1–11). So imitate Christ as you sing to Christ in the body Christ. If glorifying God in song is a sacrifice of praise (Heb. 13:15), don’t be surprised if it costs you something.
Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks, a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, and the author of Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway). He has a Bachelor of Music in jazz studies from the University of Southern California. While writing this article he listened to Gregory Alan Isakov, the Beatles, and Bach.
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Ask Granny Susie, who’s led the church choir longer than you’ve been alive, and you might hear, “Well, it’s Sunday mornin’ praise, baby!”
Ask Steven, the church band’s guitarist, and you might hear, “It’s the surge of God’s presence that I lead people into.”
The question of course is, What is true worship? Many in our churches define worship however they please.
But does God’s Word grant such freedom? Does it define worship, and if so, how? These are the questions Vaughan Roberts, rector of St Ebbe’s Church in Oxford, answers in his short book True Worship. He wrote it out of concern “that much of our thinking about worship is confused and often unbiblical” (Loc. 46).
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