It has often been said that to avoid conflict at family gatherings, it’s best to leave religion, politics, and parenting out of the conversation. Perhaps the subject of church music should be added to the list as well. If any subject elicits strong opinions and emotional responses among Christians, it’s this one.
Heated responses may be attributed to the myriad genres of musical approaches to accompaniment that have entered the church over the last thirty years. Everything from hip hop to country to classical is represented in the public worship of evangelical churches. Church music used to be more monolithic, founded largely upon the rich corpus of ancient hymnody and psalmody. Now the options for church music are endless.
In addition, the so-called “worship wars” reveal the unhealthy overemphasis placed upon church music by individual Christians and congregations today. The New Testament says nothing about instrumentation in worship. Nothing. Even so, whether in contemporary or traditional forms, musical accompaniment in worship is often elevated in importance above the divinely appointed means of Word, sacraments, and prayer— those primary means that are ordained by God to communicate Christ and his saving benefits to sinners (WSC #88).
An Overemphasis on Musical Accompaniment
This overemphasis on musical accompaniment in worship is epitomized by the approach of many evangelicals searching for a church home. Their evaluation of churches is not based predominately on the soundness of the doctrine, the faithfulness of the preaching, or the fidelity of the elders to provide spiritual oversight. Those things are hardly, if ever, considered. Rather, what mainly guides their decision on a church home is how the music and singing in the worship service make them feel. It’s purely subjective.
Music and singing, partly because of its non-confrontational nature and entertainment value, has become the central focus for many individual Christians and churches. Think about it. How much attention and focus is given to music in our worship liturgies compared to the reading, teaching, and careful exegetical preaching of God’s Word, the regular explanation and administration of the sacraments, and earnest pastoral prayer in Lord’s Day worship? It’s likely that music and singing—led by a high-energy praise band or an organist and choir—consumed the lion’s share of the service, with the means of grace given far less time, attention, and care. The early Christians were earnestly devoted to “the apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, to the breaking of bread [Lord’s Supper], and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). We would do well to follow their example.
Notwithstanding our need to give prominence to the means of grace, the church’s music and singing do indeed play a very important role in Lord’s Day worship. It must always be done with great care and excellence. Therefore, Christians should better understand the nature and roles of music and singing in our churches. Here are a few biblical principles to keep in mind:
1. Music and singing in worship are chiefly for the glory of God and the edification of the body of Christ. Music and singing, therefore, do not exist to meet the felt needs and individual preferences of believers. The music of the church was never meant to be a playlist of personal favorites or a pathway to spiritual ecstasy. Nor is it meant for evangelistic purposes. Rather, music and singing in worship exist to exalt the glory and majesty of God, and to nourish and instruct the souls of all believers, both young and old. Music and singing, then, are both doxological and pedagogical in nature.
2. Hymns, Psalms, and songs in worship should be doctrinally sound and lyrically fitting. Much of the contemporary worship music being produced today is theologically vacuous and lyrically trite— unsuitable for the throne room of Almighty God. The best of traditional hymnody and Psalmody are saturated with biblical truth and expressed with poetic beauty.
3. The musical accompaniment of hymns and Psalms should appropriately communicate the weight of the occasion—a holy and reverent meeting between God and his covenant people. To be sure, there will be differences of opinion on what constitutes appropriate musical accompaniment in Lord’s Day worship. Nevertheless, music in worship should never reflect the shallow, sensuous, and dissonant musical forms of pop culture. T. David Gordon asks, “why should the sensibilities of those who may not even know God, or the sensibilities of a commercially driven, banal culture, rule in the worship of God?” (Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, 43). The holiness and majesty of God cannot be expressed through repackaged Justin Bieber tunes. Church music should never sound trite or sexy. It should reflect holy dignity and reverence.
4. The selection of hymns, psalms, and songs is the responsibility of the ordained leadership. The elders are called to exercise godly discernment regarding what the congregation sings in public worship. The content and tone of congregational praise profoundly influence the way a congregation approaches God. Moreover, there is a theologically informed rationale for choosing specific hymns, psalms, and songs to be placed in certain parts of the liturgy. The selection of music and words is a serious aspect of biblical discipleship. Thus it shouldn’t be casually handed off to another willing person or committee in the church. The elders are called to shepherd the flock of God, and this is an important part of that duty (I Pet. 5:1-4).
5. Joyful and active participation in congregational song is a non-negotiable for Christian believers. God commands us to “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” (Col. 3:16). We are exhorted to “Sing to Him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works” (Ps. 105:2). Congregational praise is the outpouring of love and thanksgiving to God by those who are redeemed and kept by God. Therefore, do not be silent, but sing aloud of God’s glorious nature and wondrous works. Lift up your voice and sing with enthusiasm. He is worthy!
We’ve only touched upon this important subject of music and singing in the worship of the church. My prayer, however, is that the biblical principles mentioned above would motivate and guide our music and singing in the churches of the Presbyterian Church in America. Moreover, I pray that our worship would reflect a collective joy and passion for God, and a growing gratitude for the gospel of His Son.