5 Truths About Worship Music Style
Aug 7, 2019
Category: Pastoral Ministry
There are plenty of examples of believers in the early church singing (Acts 16:25, Romans 15:9, 1 Corinthians 14:15, Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16, Hebrews 2:12, James 5:13), not to mention the institution of the Levite musicians and singers prevalent throughout all of the Old Testament. The first thing the people of Israel did after safely crossing the Red Sea on dry land was sing about God (Exodus 15). In order to hear the will of God over the coalition army of Israel and Judah in 2 Kings 3:15, Elisha asks for a musician to play. A musician comes forth, plays, and Elisha hears a word from the Lord as to what the army is to do. Music has played a key role in God’s revealed word from the very beginning. However, in the last 50 years, music has hardly been a unifying force among God’s people in Western Christianity.
Few issues create more division in American churches than the music style used in its main gathering. When church members are asked about their church, it is not long before they are expected to describe its music. One of the first things guests of worship services tend to comment on after leaving is whether or not they enjoyed the music. Individual services of larger churches are selected by church members, if not for convenience of time, by style of music. Yet, in spite of the polarizing debate of music style and the never ending “worship wars” as they are often called between churches, the Bible is remarkably mute on the matter. Even as churches around me war with the question of what their music will sound like, the following are helpful reminders that souls are not saved by singing style.
#1 Nobody knows what “music style” means.
If you ask a hundred Christians what “traditional” worship music is, you are likely to get a hundred different answers and very few of them will have a biblical basis. Mike Harland, the Director of Lifeway Worship, in an interview with the Rainer on Leadership Podcast claimed, “You cannot build unity in a church around a music style.” He goes on to say that defining a worship service based on style is certain to disappoint people with differing opinions on what things like “contemporary” or “traditional” mean. Music trends and styles change over time and the American church has been in the music business for a hundred years. What was contemporary ten years ago is now old. What was outdated twenty years ago is now classic. There is no way for the lay person to keep track.
#2 There are many songs of old, perfectly preserved in scripture, and God made certain we wouldn’t know the melody or style of a single one.
The music of the Psalms are Holy Spirit inspired, inerrant, and pure expressions of worship. However, not a single one of their melodies survived the passing of time. I would argue God did this on purpose. He wanted his people to know how their creativity was leveraged to exalt God and teach people, but he didn’t want it to keep new generations from creating new expressions of the same truth. Every generation has its own musical identity and sound. It is not the church’s job to pigeon-hole which sound is more worshipful, it is the church’s job to champion all generations of all nations to make a joyful noise to their Creator.
#3 Defining a service based on music style will divide the congregation based on music preference.
In an article in The Christian Century Magazine over 20 years ago, author and musician Dr. Marva Dawn claimed dividing a congregation based on musical taste “ends up depriving traditionalists of new expressions of faith and robbing enthusiasts for the contemporary of continuity with the Christian community throughout time. Members of the congregation do not learn to appreciate a wide variety of musical styles in a fellowship of diverse people. Thus, this approach might contribute to a narcissistic self-centeredness that hampers genuine community and obstructs concern for the neighbor and outreach to the world.” If a church pays too much attention to the issue of style, they will instill in their people a toxic priority on musical taste in which they have no hope of agreement.
#4 Music style does not affect sound biblical theology, melodic consistency, or congregational participation.
The most important question about the music in God’s church is whether or not it helps the whole congregation bring glory to God. This can be done poorly and well in all kinds of ways. There are new songs with poor theology. There are old songs with poor theology. As soon as we narrow the work of God to man-made distinctions, we go down an idolatrous slope. In an article on DesiringGod.org, Bob Kauflin of Sovereign Grace Church (and Sovereign Grace Music) writes, “Idolatry can be active in my heart even when I’m gathered with the church. Whenever I think I can’t meet with God unless “X” is present, I’m making a profound statement. If “X” is anything other than Jesus Christ, and his Holy Spirit, I’ve moved into idolatrous territory.”
#5 If it doesn’t matter everywhere, it doesn’t matter anywhere.
A great measuring stick on whether or not something is a God-sized issue is to observe whether or not the issue is prevalent throughout all of God’s people in every tongue and nation. You’re not going to find the universal church in non-Western countries struggling over music style. You will find them struggling over biblical theology, sin, and Gospel clarity, but we in America have that well covered too… because those issues matter. Nobody is planting a church in India worrying about having an electric guitar player. Church plants in general do not worry about such things – unless someone in America taught them. They don’t have the luxury of choosing Chris Tomlin over Bill Gaither. They have the privilege of choosing Jesus over the world.
None of this is to say that excellence in music doesn’t matter. Whatever instruments our church utilizes, whichever singer sings, and regardless of how we do or don’t staff to it, the people of God should be led in congregational singing that has as few distractions as possible. Structuring it like a performance makes a church look like a people who love music, not God. Structuring it like a dirge makes a church look like a people who have no joy in the Spirit. Neither is pleasing to God. Worship leaders are not music producers who happen to be a church members, they are biblical shepherds who happen to sing.