A man once said to his wife, “Why do the black people and black churches have all the rhythm? Why can’t we sing like them? That doesn’t mean I don’t like our pastor’s preaching, but the music is just boring.”
This comment was directed at a Lutheran church and there have been times in the past when I’ve also felt the same way. Why does our music have to be so somber and archaic? Why can’t we be like those churches who have such energetic music?
What is the issue here? Is the issue music or is it something far deeper? What is the role of music in worship?
Music has been part of the life of God’s people since the earliest of times. Exodus 15 (1) records Moses’ song: Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the Lord, saying, “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. God’s people have used music as an act of worship towards God their creator and redeemer.
In fact, music is so important for God’s people that it has a central place in the middle of the Bible. There we find the Book of Psalms which is known as the song book of Israel. Psalm 96 records the following: Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth! Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples! Music has an important role to play in the worship of God’s people.
Of all the instruments, the voice is the primary, created instrument of music that God has blessed His people with, but it is not the only instrument. At various times throughout the life of Israel’s worship they used stringed, reed, concussive, percussive and horn-like instruments. Then as Christianity arose from Judaism and entered into different cultures, various other musical instruments developed and the style of music changed over time.
In the midst of this variety there were a couple elements that did not change and were essential to the heart of worship and music.
The lyrics containing the message was always most important. We may have lost the tunes for the Psalms, but we have not lost their message. Worship is about the Word more than the rites, ceremonies and even accompanying music. Without the truth and purity of God’s Word and its salvation message, worship becomes just another concert or gathering focused on people themselves.
Music encouraged participation rather than leaving people as spectators. Throughout the history Judeo-Christian worship music was designed to bring people into the act of worshiping God rather than have them stand watching while others worshiped God.
The problem we face today is that these two elements have been largely reversed in many worship settings. Lyrics have lost their strong biblical and theological content and have been replaced by repetitive and emotive words centered on the “I” rather than God. Instead of participation, people gather as passive recipients, listening to the music and watching “worship leaders” perform on a stage lifting them up as if they were object of worship.
These trends have been supported by the fact that music is very powerful. In the most base of cultures where music was largely limited to the pounding of drums, primitive instruments and the wailing of voices, music served to move people emotionally. This continues to be the case in our culture where lyrics take on an almost secondary role amidst the loud repetitive, percussive and emotional beat.
In the context of worship such music does not lead us closer to God, but more deeply within ourselves. In fact, many people listen to music to get a kind of emotional high or as a means of seeking peace within themselves. When we use music in this manner it becomes just another idol, even within the very place where the focus is to be on worship of God.
Does this mean worship cannot involve various kinds of instruments and styles of music? I believe the key to answering this question lies in maintaining the focus of worship which is Jesus Christ and the Gospel. We need music that is strongly biblical and reflects our confession of faith. Music is never neutral and can become a driving force on its own if it is not kept in check by God’s powerful Word.
The last comment I want to make brings us back to the story that began this article. All around us is music. We hear it on the radio, the TV and the Internet. We hear it in other churches. However, there are very few congregations that have the resources to replicate this kind of music that is often manipulated for perfection. For the small congregations who try, their attempts become a poor second cousin.
Therefore, each congregation needs to assess its God-given music resources and shape its music ministry around those resources. If God has given you a piano player and not an organist, don’t wish for an organist. If all you have is a group of young people who like to play guitar, encourage those gifts. Be who God has gifted you to be as the people of God, but keep the music and the worship centered on the truth and purity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection.