Music in Congregational Worship

In the Spring of 2010 I wrote out a few thoughts to share with our church regarding music in congregational worship. At the time I posted it on our church blog and then simply read the two pages to our congregation. Someone asked me earlier today about getting a copy of the article, so I’ve posted it here for any who may find it helpful.

A Few Thoughts on Music for our Congregation

Introduction

Yesterday I spent a few minutes discussing with our Newcomers Class why we use the type of music we do in our church. I tried to stress the importance of relying upon Scripture to answer this question. Too often in discussions regarding church music, Scripture is relegated to the back seat, while arguments regarding music theory and the historical roots of musical genres take the seat of honor.

I began by pointing out that when we go to our New Testament for instruction regarding worship in the church we find no passages specifically addressing musical style. This means that any conclusions we draw about musical style must be based on principles. Anytime we are working with principles as opposed to explicit Scriptural statement, we will have differences in application. We must be willing to work through the principles and seek to apply them in a Scripturally faithful manner, while recognizing and allowing for differences in application.

Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18-19

The two clearest passages regarding music in congregational worship in the New Testament are Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18-19. Paul is addressing churches in these letters and the commands to speak to “one another” and address “one another” in both passages indicate that he is specifically addressing congregational worship. A few observations can be made from the text (the main points are the textual observations, while the sub-points are the applications we are drawing to guide our congregation):

(1) The emphasis is on congregational singing. We are singing to “one another.”

(a) The evident musical emphasis of our worship services will not be on “special music,” but congregational singing.

(b) We should strive to sing music that is accessible to everyone. Any music that demands that you be a classically trained musician or a pop star in order to sing, we will try to avoid.  Further, we will seek to avoid songs with complex rhythms, wide ranges, etc.

(c) The emphasis then, is on the human voice singing. We want to cultivate a kind of simplicity in our singing that emphasizes our voices singing to one another, as opposed to an organ/praise band “blasting grace” from the platform.

(d) We want to sing accessible songs, congregationally.

(2) The result of the singing is that we are taught and admonished.

(a) We must be primarily concerned with the texts of the songs we sing. We want to sing the best songs available to us. We will strive to sing songs that are theologically oriented. We will strive to sings that are in whole or in part, the text of Scripture. We will strive to sing songs that speak of the character of God and the essence of the Gospel in greater proportion than we will sing songs that speak of our own Christian experience.

(b) We will strive to sing songs that are Christ-exalting, Scripturally faithful and Gospel-centered.

Summary

When we bring these two observations together, we start to see the goal a bit more clearly. We are looking for singable, accessible, doctrinally-rich, Gospel-centered songs. Historically, this has best been found in hymns. Therefore, the emphasis in our congregational singing is on singing hymns, both ancient and modern. Sometimes we may sing an old hymn of the faith, sometimes we may sing a hymn only recently written (e.g. yesterday morning in our worship service we sang “Come Thou Almighty King” and “O Great God”). In every case however, we are looking for songs that are congregationally accessible and Scripturally faithful.

The best way to describe the style in which we sing these hymns is generally conservative. We have found that this is the best way for us to arrive at unity across generational lines. In a time when church music is often a divisive issue in churches, our desire is to view this issue through the lens of our responsibility “to endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).

We also must be clear that these are the Scriptural reasons that we choose to use the music we do, in the generally conservative style that we do. We do not base these decisions in music theory, music history, quotes from musicians, or supposed effects of music on the human body. Scripture must drive us in our decisions in this area.

Finally, while this is the application the leadership of our church has settled upon for our assembly, we recognize that among both individuals and other churches there will be differences in application. This is not a problem. We are happy for the individuals in our church to search the Scriptures and through the leading of the Holy Spirit make applications for their families regarding their musical choices. There has historically been a broad spectrum of application on this matter amongst the members of our church and we are happy to maintain this. Paul’s instruction regarding debatable manners was to “let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5). Nowhere in Scripture is the unity of the church described as being found in monolithic sameness. Unity is found in the Gospel, despite sometimes tremendous diversity in secondary matters. In God’s good providence He has seen fit that in this unity-despite-diversity, His glory is reflected through the church.

Related: “Worship Style: Personal Preferences or Gospel Priorities?”

13 thoughts on “Music in Congregational Worship

  1. Mark Cox

    Recently I preached a 2 part sermon series at my extension church in NC on music. I specifically walked through the passage of Romans 14 and the first paragraph or so of chapter 15. Your thoughts here are very much along the lines of where I come from in regard to what music should be used in churches, as well as how we ought to treat one another with different standards than our own. It is encouraging to see biblical reasons being the main thing in your arguments. Many would rather preach their own ideas whether for conservative Christian music or more contemporary. Both side err in that very few people really look to see what the Bible says. Thanks for being biblical.

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  2. Russell

    I would love further explanation on this point: “The emphasis is on congregational singing. We are singing to ‘one another.’”

    When did worship become about us and singing to ‘one another’ versus singing ‘to God’?

    Also, I am confused as to why you would “seek to avoid songs with complex rhythms, wide ranges, etc.” If making your worship selections accessible to your congregation is all you are after, and all your congregation has ever known are simplistic hymns (nothing wrong with this!) then great. But what about reaching those outside of your church–those coming from a background of purely secular music. How is this form of worship accessible to those who might really need to be ministered to the most? Would you not consider mixing up your styles of worship from time to time in order to serve as an outreach to the community?

    One final thought/question: Do either or these passages that you referenced really dictate how worship music is to be played? Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs is about as vague and open to interpretation as simply saying “make music.” Rather than limiting the creativity and God-given musical talent and ability that some people possess, why not use those gifts in worship? What is wrong with a complex rhythm, a dissonant harmony, a faster beat–especially if set to solid, gospel-focused lyrics?

    Just my humble and scattered two cents. I am simply curious.

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    1. Aaron

      Russel – I think Dave is saying that music is seen in these passages for the purpose of edifying and exhorting each other. This is plain in these passages. We are singing to one another not having one person singing to everyone. He is just saying that the emphasis is on congregational singing not on “special” music. He is not saying that it isn’t in worship to God.

      Secondly we must be very careful when we are making decisions to reach those outside the church. I guess it comes down to the primary purpose of the church. If you see that the primary purpose of the church is to evangelize then I can see a problem with not picking more complex songs. Biblically, however, the churches purpose is for the edification and instruction of believers. These believers are sent out and commanded to share their faith with people outside the church. When we blur the line and make the church for non believers I believe we are using an improper decision paradigm.

      There is a church that meets next door to us that has a sign outside that says, “A church for the people who do not like church.” They are trying to reach people but they are basically saying, “A bride of Christ [which the church is supposed to be] for people who do not like the bride of Christ.” How is this Scriptural in any way? Anyway, I’m sure David will have an excellent response and he might disagree with me which is fine.

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  3. admin Post author

    Hi Lydia,

    Thanks for the comment. I’ll try to just briefly answer each question you raised:

    (1) Worship is about God–agreed. I’m getting the phrase “one another” from Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 which both use the phrase (“singing to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”).

    (2) In regards to mixing up the musical style to serve as outreach to the community–my understanding of a church’s worship service is that it is for believers. In other words, while non-Christians may join us, we are gathered as God’s people to worship our Lord. So the worship service is planned based on this. Many churches see this differently (perhaps yours does), but that’s a broader discussion.

    (3) In regards to your last question: no, I don’t think that either of these passages dictate how the music is to be played (style). My opinion is that the congregational nature of corporate worship lends itself to simplicity, but this is certainly an application of these passages and not the clear teaching of Scripture. If other churches apply these passages faithfully in their context and that looks like a contemporary-styled service, that’s great. I don’t think that’s less faithful, sinful, or somehow not Scriptural. This is a secondary, applicational issue.

    Hope that helps.

    Blessings!

    David

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  6. Jeff

    We are trying to stop using words like contemporary and traditional or even conservative at our church. Instead, we want to simply be relevent to our culture. There is a very young median age where our church exists, , so we go with a lot of the newer worship music. We want everyone to be able to engage in worship so we try to keep the songs singable also. (range, complexity,etc.) Anyway, I like the overall idea put forth in this article about appealing to scripture! It is always our standard, even though we sometimes interpret it differently.

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  9. Paul Overly

    A Facebook friend posted this essay and I felt inclined to make a few clarifying remarks.

    A few thoughts about style and music theory (and history). What scripture teaches about music encompasses both text and style. For example when we are commanded to rejoice both the text and the music symbols will naturally reflect joy. The song of drunkards or mocking songs referenced in scripture also denote both text and musical style. Frankly since most of us wouldn’t understand the language of those songs, it would be the musical style that would most clearly communicates the meaning to us. Most probably we would comprehend the difference between the mocking style and the rejoicing style–even across the ages of time. So while the Bible doesn’t tell us “Thou shalt not sing rock and roll,” it is too simplistic to say the Bible does not address style.

    I would also note that music theory is simply a language to facilitate the understanding and discourse about music. I’m sure you would agree that even explicit statements in scripture require textual and contextual interpretation. Just as you would not take scriptural stands apart from grammatical, lexical, or literary considerations of a passage of scripture (these considerations come to us apart from scripture for the most part), neither should you minimize “music theory” from your discussions about music (and you don’t–you use terms like “wide ranges” and “syncopation” to describe your choices).

    The observations of music history are helpful to a musical discussion just as the study of the historical context is helpful and even necessary to understand more fully some of the Pauline epistles for example. Isn’t it of interest to us all to research the common understandings about music during the times scripture passages were written? You would study the history of theology, so it is needful for us to study music history to understand the development of music and also the music controversies of earlier times. All of this understanding helps us make informed biblical choices. I doubt we are in disagreement on these matters, but I do believe it is helpful to clarify the discussion.

    I “suppose” the phrase in your essay that most caught my attention was “supposed effects of music on the human body.” While musical expression is deeply spiritual, it is undeniably physical. This is one of those universal understandings about music–it’s part of our common experiences as humans. The physical manifestations that accompany musical symbols can be observed in scriptural writing about music as well (Miriam and David dance, Saul is quieted, the Israelites run around naked, David mourns, etc.). These musical effects are neither supposed nor irrelevant, and indeed you made those musical choices when you chose simpler hymnody and avoided symbols that might overshadow the texts you wish to affirm together as a church body. Even so, the physical pleasure and physical effect of voices raised together in praise to God is undeniable and an absolutely appropriate effect of affirming truth.

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  11. Grotte

    Would it be so terrible if how we worshiped God, whether congregationally or individually, didn’t matter? Should worship not be our ernest attempt to respond to Gods almighty holiness and his overwhelming presence? I have studied music formally for years, lead many worship teams, and participated in tradition worship leading along with worshipping as a part of the congregation, and I have come firmly to the conclusion that the “formula” for proper worship is liquid. Yes, the lyrics should primarily reflect theological truths, but there is a place for the simple contemporary songs such as we find in most young worship services.
    Lydia, I was pleasantly surprised to find you here! Yes, I agree that music and its cultural expression is constantly redefined and churches don’t need to be so trepidatious concerning it, but at present I am more of the opinion that the church is a collection of believers and not a building of religious traditions aimed at evangelism among other things. The edification of the body of Christ is the first objective, and the projecting of Christ likeness is optimally the “hook” that draws unbelievers in. (still musing of worship of course)

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