One of the hurdles, er . . . blessings, of completing a degree in Church Music is the preparation of a detailed personal philosophy of the scriptural basis of the purposes, functions, and methods of using music in corporate worship. I successfully completed this work last Spring (hooray!). However, even though my professor granted a generous grade on the paper I wasn’t completely satisfied with the document. It didn’t contain everything that I wanted to say, nor was it well suited for general consumption. It’s taken a while, but I now have a paper that fully expresses my thoughts on this topic in a way that is accessible for both lay and clergy church members. I present it here for your consideration. You likely won’t agree with all of my positions. They are, though, based on serious contemplation of the issues, extensive readings of related literature, and prayerful evaluation of the pertinent Scriptures. It is my prayer that, whether you agree or disagree with one or more positions, they stimulate fresh and profound thinking and intentional actions in your future thoughts and deeds regarding the corporate worship of our Savior. May this contribute to producing worship that more perfectly approaches what our God asks and desires.
A MUSIC and WORSHIP MINISTRY PHILOSOPHY
What is worship? Although worship is at the crux of the church’s purpose, it is also one of the most challenging terms to define in the Church’s life. Condensing the significance of worship into a few words or sentences often boils off its essence, or worse, misses the mark entirely. However, I have found two definitions that, combined, set a solid foundation for an understanding or worship. Scott Aniol coined this definition of worship: “drawing near to communion with God through Christ by faith.” A moment’s thought allows one to give assent to the accuracy of this succinct definition, yet, it seems a bit abstract and cold. I have found that supplementing this with William Temple’s colorful definition from early last century brings the meaning of worship to life. He states,
Worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of mind with His truth; the purifying of imagination by His Beauty; the opening of the heart to His love; the surrender of will to His purpose — and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centeredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin.
From this, it is apparent that communion with God (worship) is an activity that forms, or better transforms the worshipper. This is worship as Paul describes it in Rom 12:1-2, worship that changes worshippers. In assembled body, participants are renewed in community awareness and their connection with a faith passed down through the ages by a great cloud of witnesses. They are taught and reinforced in values and beliefs, and cultured in the community’s standards of conduct. They are transformed.
And what are worshippers changed into? Christ-likeness (Rom 8:29); Saints leading holy and blameless lives (Eph 1:4) and bearing the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-25).
Worship is one of the ways the church fulfills the third leg of the Great Commission, a means to teach disciples to obey everything that Christ has commanded (Matt 28:19-20). Worship is an essential component of taking off the old self and putting on the new creation (Eph 4:22-24).
The role of the Bible in worship.
How then, ought we to worship? Are we free to worship in any form and content that seems right and effective? If we hold that the Bible is the very word of God, and that it is sufficient for equipping the servant of God for every good work (2 Tim 3:16), then the Bible must be our guide for all matters of personal and corporate worship. If that is so, then the Bible should be the lodestar of our worship practices rather than the surrounding culture. Hebrews 12:28 tells us to offer God acceptable worship. The qualifier, acceptable, implies that there is such a thing as ‘unacceptable’ worship. Deuteronomy 12:8’s warning not to practice “everyone doing whatever is right in their own eyes (ESV)” and Proverbs multiple warnings that, “there is a way that seems right to a man but its end is the way to death,” show that our own judgment is inadequate. Thus, our worship should be guided by what is pleasing to God, not what is pleasing to man. What, then, does the Bible prescribe for worship? Here are some of the most vital elements:
- Worship Is For God Alone (Neh. 9:6, Luke 4:8)
- Worship Is About God (1 Chron. 16:28-29)
- Worship Has Standards (Deut. 12:4, Heb. 12:28)
- Worship Is Submission to God (Rev. 4:9-11)
- Worship Is From Believers (Heb. 11:6)
- Worship Is Through Christ (Heb. 13:15, 1 Peter 2:5)
- Worship Is By the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:18, Phil. 3:3)
- Worship Is In Spirit and Truth (John 4:24)
- Worship Involves Our Affections and Intellect (1 Cor. 14:15)
- Worship Is In Awe and Reverence (Heb. 12:28)
- Worship Is In Expectation (Matt. 21:22, James 4:8)
- Worship Is Glorious (Ps. 66:2, Ps. 96:7-9)
- Worship Is Glad and Joyful (Ps. 100)
- Worship Draws the Faithful (Ps. 84:1-4)
- Worship Shapes Us (Col. 3:16)
- Worship Convicts the Sinner (1 Cor. 14:25)
- Worship Is Orderly (1 Cor. 14:39)
Music belongs in corporate worship because, again, the Bible calls for it. The edict is strongest in the Old Testament but it is clearly commanded in the New Testament as well, being principally exhibited in the commands to sing to one another and to the Lord in Eph. 5:18-21 and Col. 3:16.
Besides obedience to Scripture, are there practical, biblically-ordained reasons for using music in worship? Yes. Although other art forms can be justified on a biblical basis, music is explicitly commanded in the New Testament, as just seen. What, then, is the point of using music in worship? Because facts and propositions are insufficient to convey the essence of all truth. Art is able to communicate on an emotional plane that the mere transmission of information cannot reach. Art is able to communicate the inarticulable. James K. A. Smith says, “words mean more than their propositional content.” Their sequence, meter, rhyme, alliteration, etc., combine to convey something greater than the sum of their definitions. Art is thus a way to convey meta-truths, to speak to the heart in more precise ways than any words could. Art is a God-demonstrated and Bible-sanctioned means of telling the truth. For example, the poetry of Psalm 19:1-2 says more than the content alone, and the content points to God’s artwork that says more about him than words ever could:
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
What is music’s function?
These New Testament passages which command us to sing also explain music’s corporate purpose. Colossians tells us to teach and admonish one another with music. This fulfills one of the church’s primary functions, to edify believers (Eph. 4:11-16). Both Ephesians and Colossians tell us to gratefully express our hearts to the Lord. This supports the church’s ultimate purpose, worship (John 4:23-24). Obvious by omission is any mention of church music as a vehicle for self-gratification, entertainment, or individual exhibition.
Who should make music?
From Ephesians and Colossians we see that music should primarily be a congregational activity; it involves the body of Christ ministering to one another and communally expressing their heart to God. This also implies that the music is primarily vocal – that is, containing words – but instrumental music is also implied (the Greek behind make music or make melody in Eph 5:19 implies stringed instruments). Second, music is not just an activity of the talented; rather, all are expected to participate. If you have been redeemed, it seems that God expects you to sing about it, no matter what kind of voice he has given you (Ps 107:1-3)!
Should there be any restrictions on music ministry participation?
Should music ministry participants be church members? Need they be baptized? Do they even need to have a clear confession of faith in Christ? On one hand, the Bible is clear that our worship must be “in spirit and truth (John 4:25)” and that “without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6).” As Paul Clark says, “There is no such thing as genuine Christian worship without faith.” On the other hand, effective outreach has been accomplished through choir and instrumental participation. Attending a weekly rehearsal of doctrinally sound music is an effective discipleship and evangelism tool. Ultimately, this is a decision for each church body to make for itself, but a clear policy is needed whichever position is taken. At a minimum, the people in prominent leadership positions need to have clear confessions of faith, evidence of spiritual fruit, and upright character. However, some leeway may be appropriate towards participation in larger ensembles.
What is the relationship between music and worship?
First of all, worship is mandatory (Ps 96:9, Lk 4:8). It is the highest and ultimate function of the church (Isa. 43:20-21, 1 Pet. 2:9). Second, a time will come when evangelism and discipleship and preaching will cease, but worship will go on forever. Third, worship is what we give to God, not what we get out of it. However, in many ways we have lost track of what worship is and is for. One hears all manner of Christians today refer to music as “worship,” and so it should be. However, the usual intent is to identify the church’s music as the worship portion of the service and everything else as, well, something else. This should not be. Our music in assembled unity should be worship, but worship does not consist solely of music, nor is it a foregone conclusion that when we have made music we have worshiped. Music performed solely for the gratification of the performer or the congregation is no offering of worship at all. The preaching, prayers, offerings, scripture readings, and ordinances are all part of corporate worship as well (Neh. 9, 1 Tim. 4:13). Even the announcements can be offered in worship when envisioned as commissioning of the saints. From this perspective it is clear that the primary worship leader of a service is the pastor not the singer!
So how then do we worship through music? The biblical Hebrew and Greek words translated into the English ‘worship’ convey the sense of bowing to the ground in complete submission. We don’t do much bowing in Western culture these days, but what we typically do in the musical portion of our worship doesn’t often convey submission either. How, then, could we explain submissive musical worship in modern terms? Refer back to the earlier definition of worship from William Temple and consider these questions:
Does our music exalt His holiness? Does our music feed our minds with biblical truth? Does our music purge our imaginations from vain, worldly concepts and replace them with His beauty? Does our music call us to know and emulate His love? Surrender to His will? Come and adore Him? If so, then we have approached His throne to “worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness” (Ps. 96:9).
Who should lead worship?
As mentioned above, the true worship leader of a church is its pastor who is ultimately responsible for all elements of a service and for leading the church body in the spiritual disciplines. Aspects of a service, such as the music, may be delegated, both to allow the Holy Spirit to utilize all the gifts he has distributed among the leaders and to relieve the pastor from duties that might distract from teaching and shepherding the flock. Unfortunately, a service’s musical responsibilities are all too often dispensed on musical ability alone rather than pastoral calling and training. David de Bruyn says this “is like delegating the planning of the Lord’s Supper to the kitchen staff.” (And may God bless those who emulate servant leadership in our kitchens!) In most churches, as much or more time is spent on music than on preaching, scripture reading, and praying combined. This is formative time for feeding the flock and they need nutrition, not empty calories. Those planning the musical ‘menu’ need to understand how to feed the flock biblical nourishment. If the musical staff doesn’t have the theological background to provide this, then it needs to come from the pastor or pastoral staff.
What about quality?
Psalm 66:2 tells us to “make his praise glorious.” As our creator, the only being worthy of worship, God’s praise should be the most excellent we can provide. Also, no matter how wonderful the praise may be, it must be given sacrificially. Stale, routine, half-hearted offerings give the LORD no pleasure. Consider David’s words: “I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing” (2 Sam. 24:24). To guard against quality itself becoming an idol, we need to keep the standard of measure to be our heart’s sincerity, as shown by the widow’s offering of two coins. Jesus commended her sincerity, not the quantity, saying, “out of her poverty she had put in everything she had” (Matthew 12:44). Thus, there is no room for pride or envy in our worship. “We do not worship excellence; we worship God excellently” (Emmanuel Baptist Church, Mauldin, SC). Thus, each church body should offer the best they have from the resources that the Lord himself has provided them and, without boasting, give God the glory for the result. This is sufficient (2 Cor 10:17-18).
Still, for most of the church’s history it has been the fount of the finest music of its age. The tendency towards inferior church music is a relatively recent development. At a time when public education continues to de-emphasize music, the church has an opportunity to raise the quality of God’s praise and restore a measure of its historical artistic excellence so as to make God’s praise glorious. Consider, then, Ps 66 as a challenge to never be satisfied until the excellence of our praises is worthy of the excellence of our Savior.
Should worship and music be aimed towards unbelievers?
Authentic worship can only be offered by regenerate believers in Jesus Christ (John 4:23-25). Corporate worship is intended to be accomplished by the congregation of the saints. Evangelism is a legitimate component of worship, but the scriptural model for effective proclamation of the gospel is authentic worship by true believers (1 Corinthians 14: 24-25). Services sculpted to appeal to “seekers” or non-believers may be worthwhile evangelistic meetings but I submit that these are not a substitute for scriptural corporate worship. Thus, our worship services should be designed for the communion of the saints with the triune God. This will provide compliance with Scripture and the most excellent witness to unbelievers.
A Description of Scriptural Worship Music
This paper began by asking, “What is Worship?” Having argued that Scripture should determine what acceptable worship is I now submit that Bible-shaped worship music looks like this:
- God focused
- For God, about God (who he is, what he is like, what he has done, what he has said, in all three persons), and towards God (Ex. 20:3, Ps. 7:17, Ps. 105:2, Matt. 4:10, Heb. 13:15).
- Christ Centered (Col. 3:16-17, Phil. 2:9-11, 1 Peter 2:5)
- Jesus is exalted, proclaimed, adored, emulated, obeyed, and expected.
- Spirit Empowered
- True worship is by believers regenerated by the Holy Spirit (Heb. 11:6, Eph. 2:18)
- This doesn’t mean charismatic, just that worship without the Spirit is void.
- Corporate worship that is acceptable to God assumes a covenant community that has been created and qualified by the Holy Spirit (Bible.org).
- Scripturally Saturated
- Magnifying the gospel: in content and shape, worship must conform to the scriptures (John 4:23b).
- Music is a vehicle for proclaiming the Word of God… “The gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both word and music, namely, by proclaiming [God’s word] through music and by providing sweet melodies with words.” – Martin Luther
- “The Word of God is the bedrock foundation upon which all of our worship practice is built.” – Grace Bible Church, Plantation, FL.
- Doctrinally Sound (Col 3:16, John 4:23)
- The church’s music boldly proclaims the whole gospel. It should “distinguish between the unavoidable offense of the gospel and the avoidable offense(s) of obscure traditionalism” (Parker Hills Bible Fellowship, Parker, CO).
- Care must be taken to ensure the church’s music supports its doctrine without mixture of error or confusion.
- Segregating a congregation by musical taste is completely unbiblical. We wouldn’t dream of dividing by race, nationality, or gender. The gospel is supposed to unite diverse peoples into one body (Rom 5:12). Worship services should unify multiple generations into one family, exemplifying mutual submission (Eph. 5:21), and deference over preference (Rom 12:10), where each generation rejoices in blessing others (Rom 12:15). Corporate worship should build up the body in unity, not segregate it (Phil. 2:1-4).
- “One of the leading ways the church can testify to God’s unifying power before our segregated world is to establish and maintain congregations and worship services that transcend cultural barriers, including age and musical styles” (Tullian Tchividjian).
- “Double-Directional” (Gordon Fee)
- Given to God (vertical).
- Experienced with fellow believers and demonstrated to unbelievers (horizontal).
- Comprehensible, Communicable, Meaningful (1 Cor. 14:15)
- “Our own experiences, our own words, our own voice” – David de Bruyn
- The most important instrument in the church is the congregation (Ps. 5:11, Ps. 30:4, Ps. 95:1-2, Ps. 100:2, Ps. 111:1, Eph. 1:11-12, Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16).
- Congregational songs should suit the abilities of the people or, in other words, be ‘singable’. Most congregations will have little musical training and shouldn’t be asked to sing music beyond their abilities.
- This doesn’t mean ‘immediate’, or instantly appealing. It means that it should be within the grasp of the people. Nutritious eating takes a little more effort than junk food consumption. Music is the same way.
- Despite the preceding thought, we should not seek the easy way out. Our music should be the highest quality the church can produce commensurate with the congregation’s abilities and resources. This is because God deserves our best (Ps. 66:1-2). Our sacrifice of praise should cost us something (2 Sam 24:24, Ps 33:3), always keeping in mind that quality without sincerity is ritualistic and vain and displeasing to God (Amos 5:21-23), driving man away from God rather than drawing him near.
- Proper and sincere music and worship will be evangelistic. When we offer clear and orderly gospel-centered worship, then when “an unbeliever . . . enters . . . he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.” (1 Cor. 14:23-24, 1 Chron. 16:23, Isa. 12:5)
- We should avoid complacency and seek to always broaden our musical vocabulary. The Christian’s expression is impoverished when restricted to the familiar and the trite (Ps. 96:1-2, Ps. 98:1, Ps. 149:1). Exposure to unfamiliar styles and new music provides a foretaste of the great heavenly assembly when “every creature in heaven and on earth” will sing to the Lamb “blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever” (Rev 5:18).
- Biblically Shaped
- The Bible provides an authorized, inspired, hymnal in the Psalms (2 Chron. 29:30). The psalter provides significant guidance for us, not only in explicit song texts, but also in matters of form, style, and expression. It covers the full gamut of human emotion, expressed in ways that God finds acceptable, with a rich and deep vocabulary that tells us much about how our music should be structured.
All the above intentionally omits any overt discussion of style. Do I support traditional, contemporary, classical, country, cutting edge, blended or what? The answer is yes. To me, quality and sincerity are far more important than style, and both must yield to offering music in spirit and truth. However, at least part of the reason that music has been such a contentious church issue in recent decades is because of music’s profound ability to shape us. How it does so has long been debated, but it is nearly universally regarded to affect our emotions, and, for most of civilizations’ history, music has been believed to have the power to develop or degrade character as well. This should not be surprising. God designed the physics that allows music to function. He designed our ears and auditory systems to perceive music’s modulations. He designed our hearts in a way that allows music to interact with our deepest affections. If this is all true, then the Church’s leaders are obliged to apply music in a way that fulfills worship’s formative purpose, to make Christ-like disciples. So, there is a choice: to ignore what Augustine called, “the danger that lies in gratifying the senses,” and adapt the musical forms of the surrounding culture, or, to creatively practice music in a way that renews the people’s minds in the shape of Christ. Music conveys a message, whether it has lyrics or not. The message of the sounds and rhythms needs to support the message of the church just as much as the lyrics do.
In light of all this, I find the following points to be practical stylistic guidelines for our music:
- The styles should be emotionally and intellectually meaningful to the people. Music that is unintelligible to the mind or the heart fails to meet a number of the scriptural guidelines outlined above and fails to edify the church and express our hearts to God. The styles used should express the congregation’s own voice, in its own words.
- The styles used should center on what the people can do well. Music that is too difficult or is outside the people’s expressive range fails also.
- Rather than use musical styles that conform the church to our surrounding culture, we should creatively practice our music in a way that transforms our minds with an aim towards transforming the culture around us.
- Music shouldn’t be about creating a mood. We’re not to be like the prophets of Baal, dancing and bleeding in an effort to draw our God down to us. He is already among us! “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt 18:20). Nor is the music’s purpose to manipulate our emotions, but rather to serve our affections in expressing our response to God for who he is and what he has done. In serving our affections, the musical style should be congruent with the message of the music so that the form of the music doesn’t counteract its content.
- Our music should appropriate the best from the Church’s heritage and today’s practices. Styles and taste change with time and building a worship practice around a particular style or genre of music either freezes a congregation into a historical rut, or subjects it to the whims of popular culture or both. Keeping music relevant, authentic, and scripturally sound takes hard work. Let’s not get stuck in a rut!
- Our music should be beautiful, in all the connotations of the word, and not just referring to ‘prettiness’. In the Bible’s depictions of beauty, its epitome is found in the radiance of God’s manifold perfections, or his glory. Psalm 104:1 says God is clothed with honor and majesty. Psalm 19:1 says the heavens declare the glory of God. In the creation narrative God looks at his handiwork and declares it “good” (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31), with a clear connotation of beauty in regards to creation being sufficient, sound, functional, and complete. Thus, the Bible declares that the standard and source of all beauty is God himself and that it has been displayed to all people through His creation.
This contradicts the popular concept that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In other words, beauty is not relative. Rather, things have absolute, objective qualities that are beautiful when they reflect the truth, goodness, and beauty found in God. Although the perception of beauty can be subjective based on the perceiver’s knowledge and experiences, the apprehension of actual beauty can also be developed. This development is one of the responsibilities of the Christian and particularly of Christian leaders.
Phil 4:8 (ESV) says “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Christians are obliged to praise what is absolutely beautiful, discern that which reflects God’s beauty, and contemplate such things with the goal of aligning what is subjectively beautiful (thoughts, values, preferences) with what is objectively beautiful (God, Jesus, Scripture, creation) in order to point the church away from the world’s corruptions and toward God’s perfections. Our music needs to project and instill these values among the saints.
A Conservative Christian Declaration; Article 13: “On Today’s Congregational Music”; David de Bruyn (religiousaffections.org/articles/articles-on-aesthetics/artice-13-on-todays-congregational-music).
“Brief Philosophy of Corporate Worship,” Dan Kreider, http://canemus.org/2011/07/brief-philosophy-of-corporate-worship/.
“Deference Over Preference,” Paul Clark, September 9, 2013, http://paulclarkjr.com/2013/09/09/deference-over-preference/.
“Do You Hear the People Sing?” Marshall Segal, November 16, 2014
“Is Your Worship Music Driven by Complaints or Mission in Context?” Ed Stetzer, Christianity Today, March 27, 2014.
“Our Pursuit of Biblically Authentic Worship,” Immanuel Bible Church, Sheboygan, WI.
“Philosophy for Music in Corporate Worship,” Grace Bible Church, November 17, 2006.
“Philosophy of Music & Worship,” Grace Bible Church, Plantation, FL, http://www.westgatebaptist.org/site/cpage.asp?cpage_id=140026146&sec_id=140002402.
“Philosophy of Worship”; Emmanuel Baptist Church, Mauldin, SC (ebcupstate.com/about/what-we-believe/philosophy-worship).
“Principles on Effectively Leading Corporate Worship,” Chad Stafford, The Sanctuary, Deland, FL.
“The Worship Service: A Hindrance of a Highway for Revival,” Ron Owen, Cornerstone Baptist Church, Clinton, SC.
“What Is the Philosophy of Worship that Unites Us?” John Piper, Desiring God, April 1, 1994, http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-is-the-philosophy-of-worship-that-unites-us.
“What Is Christ-Centered Worship?” Karl Dahlfred, February 1, 2010.
“Worship Philosophy,” Countryside Baptist Church, Olathe, KS, http://www.cside.org/worship.aspx.
“Worship Philosophy,” Scofield Church, Dallas, TX, http://www.scofield.org/ministries/93.
“Worship & Arts Philosophy of Ministry,” Grace Community Church, Mills River, NC, http://www.graceinfo.org/ministries/worship/philosophy-of-ministry.
“Worship Verses and Quotes,” Sherwood Baptist Church, Newcastle, OK, http://sherwoodbaptist.com/about/music-philosophy/worship-verses-quotes/.
“7 Biblical Tests for Christians and Music,” Ed Stetzer, Christianity Today, June 5, 2013.
Scott Aniol,“Draw Near to God Through Jesus Christ By Faith,” Religious Affections Ministries, June 29, 2011, accessed April 20, 2016, http:// religiousaffections. org/ articles/articles-on-worship/draw-near-to-god-through-jesus-christ-by-faith/
William Temple, Readings in St. John’s Gospel, First and Second Series, (New York, Macmillan Co., 1945), 68.